Love and revolution in East Timor
'Alias Ruby Blade' documents East Timor's liberation struggle from a unique perspective, writes Sue Green
For a documentary maker, there can be few things more exciting than having a potential subject offer up a cache of original footage. When that subject is a former resistance worker who risked her life carrying messages from a jailed political leader it just gets better and better.
And if the resistance worker has not retreated into oblivion with the leader's release but is now his wife and first lady of his independent nation, it is a situation little short of documentary-making nirvana.
Such was the treasure trove offered to filmmakers Alex Meillier and Tanya Ager Meillier, who wanted to make their own film about East Timor after working there for the United Nations in 2005. "The trailer that we edited for the [UN] film was so amazing that every UN official in New York wanted to be in the film and they ruined it," Meillier says.
Having just edited Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story, they had funds to pursue their own project. "We decided to [go] back [to East Timor] and tell the story. We started researching key members of the resistance," he says.
That was how Australian-born Kirsty Sword, now Kirsty Sword Gusmão, wife since 2000 of East Timor's prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, came to their notice. The New York-based couple (director-screenwriter Meillier is American while his wife, producer-screenwriter Ager Meillier, is British-born) saw her story as a metaphor for East Timor's story.
The resulting documentary is part love story, part action thriller, part record of East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia.
Alternatively put, Alias Ruby Blade tells the country's story through the prism of the story of the Melbourne-born activist codenamed "Ruby Blade" when she was an underground operative for the Timorese resistance in Jakarta.
There are gaps in East Timor's story in this documentary which the viewer must fill with prior knowledge or later research. But as Meillier says, "we would have failed if we sought to make a film that encapsulates the entire history in 80 minutes".
Sword Gusmão told the Meilliers that she had once wanted to make films herself. Asked whether she still had footage she shot while in Jakarta acting as a conduit for Gusmão's smuggled jail messages to the freedom fighters in Timor, she said they were welcome to look at it. Upon hearing this, the Meilliers jumped on a plane to Dili.
"I was an aspiring filmmaker myself and in all the key moments of my involvement in East Timor and the struggle I had a video camera with me and tried to document what was going on," Sword Gusmão confirmed at the film's Australian premiere on May 9, the opening night of the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival in Melbourne.
"Life had been such a whirlwind I could never envisage sitting down and going through the footage, never mind making the film. For me this was a wonderful solution, to be able to share the film and for it to see the light of day. I worked with two people who had a very deep passion, as I did, for the country and the people," she says.
Filmed in English, Portuguese and the Timorese language Tetum, Alias Ruby Blade was five years in the making. It had its world premiere at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, then screened at New York's Tribeca Film Festival and the London Film Festival.
But it was only in Melbourne that they had not just Sword Gusmão helping to promote it, but also her husband, the prime minister who was also the first president of East Timor, from May 2002 to May 2007). It was in his wife's city of birth that Gusmão saw the film for the first time and was welcomed with a standing ovation.
Sword Gusmão grew up in Melbourne and was back in the city with family members for several months undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Although limiting interviews, she donned a wig to take part in the festival panel discussion, with her husband and Meillier.
With her political leader spouse stroking her face and describing her as "the star of the film", she told the audience it was not easy to marry someone with a great weight of responsibility on his shoulders.
"From the very beginning it was clear to me that this was not going to be a conventional relationship," she says. Describing herself as having been "a single mother for the last 10 years" - the couple have three sons - she is adamant that "we would continue as we did from the beginning, to sacrifice the personal for the public".
The East Timorese political leader was filmed at length, but much of that footage does not appear. Citing the example of footage of him making pancakes for his sons, Meillier says the filmmakers wanted to take the audience on a journey and to have used such footage would have meant opening with the end of the story.
"We were trying to show a different and unique point of view." It was structured like a hero's journey, he says. "But it is not a traditional hero's journey because it is about people working together."
Alias Ruby Blade's interviews with former resistance leaders took its makers around the world. They are interspersed with news clips and Sword Gusmão's footage. But it was not clear to all in the audience, this writer included, that some of the footage consisted of reconstructions until the panel discussion.
Asked about this, Meillier says he believed this was an accepted technique, as in movies such as The Imposter - British director Bart Layton's Bafta-winning documentary about a Frenchman who masqueraded as a grieving Texas family's son who had been missing for three years - and that no labelling or mention in the credits was necessary.
"There were certain scenes that we wanted to portray that we did not have the footage for, but we did not want to shoot it in such a way that it looked like her footage," Meillier says. So those sequences, including Sword Gusmão's flight from Jakarta, were shot on 16mm film, in close-up, with a shallow depth of field. "We tried to do it in a way that was very dreamlike."
The sequences used a lookalike and while Meillier insists it was obvious they were reconstructions, Ager Meillier says that, "we are asking you to believe that it is her". Asked whether this was honest she says: "Yes, because it is true."
Meillier says: "I think you have to trust that you are in the hands of people who are telling you a true story." He then walks out of the interview in protest at the suggestion that he is a dishonest filmmaker.
In recent years, Sword Gusmão had focused on running her Alola Foundation to improve the lives of East Timor's women but is now stepping back to allow local women to take over.
Before leaving, Meillier told me that by shining a light on her work, he felt that Alias Ruby Blade was also illuminating the work of the foundation, so had the potential to have a powerful social impact.