Reclaiming the Personal as Political: Three Documentaries on East Timor

By Debrett, Mary | Metro Magazine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming the Personal as Political: Three Documentaries on East Timor


Debrett, Mary, Metro Magazine


INTRODUCTION

POLITICAL DOCUMENTARIES are commonly deemed to be difficult. They are difficult for broadcasters because controversy tends to provoke public complaints and criticism from politicians; they are difficult for the audience because the subject matter can be complex and is often harrowing, invoking compassion fatigue; and they are difficult for film-makers, because these previously mentioned difficulties make getting funding difficult. When Tom Zubrycki initially pitched The Diplomat (2000) at the 1998 AIDC conference in Brisbane, to the Documart panel of international broadcasters, one from the United Kingdom said 'we've already done Timor', an apparent reference to Death of a Nation: the Timor Conspiracy (David Munro, 1994), made four years earlier. The comment drew a horrified gasp from the predominantly Australian audience. But because of its situation of 'extreme public horror' the East Timorese struggle for independence is a topic the media would normally prefer to avoid, being deemed more likely to evoke compassion fatigue than viewer gratification. (1) And documentaries on East Timor pose a further difficulty in being about cultural 'others' and thus raise issues of ethnocentric framing, problematizing representation for the film-maker, and posing further potential for audience alienation for the broadcaster.

The 'political documentary'--which evokes notions of agency and social effect--is often now cast as polemicist and boring, characterized by voice-of-god narration, or as staking false claims to objectivity, and tends to be relegated to the more speech driven genre of current affairs. In the ever burgeoning category of factual programming, with its celebration of subjective viewpoint as confession or testimony and its penchant for the observational aesthetic, claims to social effect now tend to be seen as film-maker affectation, for viewer interpretation has assumed supremacy over authorial viewpoints and the status of preferred readings remains nebulous. Yet some documentaries have had quite remarkable social effect in exposing injustice. Errol Morris' Thin Blue Line (1988) is the most quoted example, but Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy is also a case in point. This 1994 documentary made by the internationally renowned journalist John Pilger, and director, David Munro, brought global attention to the scale of atrocities committed by the Indonesians in East Timor, and to the way in which America, Britain and Australia had colluded with Indonesia's occupation and its brutal suppression of the Timorese independence movement. East Timorese activist, Jose Ramos Horta, said of the film:

Our struggle for the recognition of our human rights was in the doldrums until Death of a Nation was shown around the world. It changed everything for us, it gave us a visual and factual point of reference: something we could show governments and say, 'Do you find this doubt it was bringing forward our and saving countless We shaft never forget what Pilger and David Munro what their brave film did; it is part of our history. (2)

Employing an interrogative approach infused with rhetorical flourishes, John Pilger's narration evokes the voice-of-god authority, which is undercut by the silences he allows within the film for viewer interpretation and by the way he utilizes the self-incriminating evasions and hypocrisy of politicians and diplomats, setting official versions in ironic juxtaposition to the testimony of witnesses and expatriate Timorese. an agent of truth Pilger's approach embraces what Dai Vaughan has called the 'puritan conscience' of documentary, serving our 'need for a mode in which untruth is a hazard'. (3) Factual accuracy is paramount here, and Pilger's rigorous research unearths very damning evidence, with a former CIA operative blowing the whistle on his nation's betrayal of the Timorese. Another scene reveals Australia's then foreign minister Gareth Evans and Indonesia's Allie Allitas, champagne glasses aloft, toasting their respective governments' 1991 signing of the Timor Gap oil treaty. …

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