Magazine article Metro Magazine

Seeing Past the Bloodshed: Beatriz's War

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Seeing Past the Bloodshed: Beatriz's War

Article excerpt

ART REFLECTS LIFE, OR SO THEY SAY. BUT, IN THE CASE OF BEATRIZ'S WAR--THE FIRST EAST TIMORESE FEATURE FILM--IT SEEMS ART CAN ALSO SHINE A LIGHT ON LIVES AND LOVES LOST DURING DECADES OF CONFLICT. ANTHONY CAREW SPEAKS TO LUIGI ACQUISTO, CO-DIRECTOR OF THE FILM, ABOUT THIS REVOLUTIONARY WORK AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE TO THE PEOPLE OF THE SMALL SOUTH-EAST ASIAN NATION.

Few films made in 2013 double as historical firsts, but Beatriz's War marks the first ever feature film from East Timor. Co-scripted by its star, Irim Tolentino (who plays the titular heroine), and co-directed by Timorese filmmaker Bety Reis and Australian documentarian Luigi Acquisto, the film is a decade-spanning saga that begins during East Timor's fleeting independence in 1975 and continues through to the unstable armistice arrived at in 1999. Of winning the International Film Festival of India's top prize, the Golden Peacock, in 2013, Acquisto tells me: 'It was amazing to win an award in a country with the world's biggest film industry, for a film from a country with exactly one film to its name.'

I speak to him at his home base in Melbourne about the creation and reception of the film.

Cinema is a huge part of cultural identity, and seeing one's own stories on screen carries such weight especially for smaller countries and non-dominant cultures. Was the absence of film as a form of storytelling felt in East Timor?

No, because there's no real knowledge of cinema at all in Timor. That's what made [Beatriz's War] particularly challenging. As we were working together with local filmmakers, they were discovering the process. And once the film [was] finished, we discovered the impact it could have on audiences--because, even though [in Australia] the film is a niche film, in Timor it's actually a hit. It's already been seen by over 100,000 people. It's toured all of the [country's] districts, playing big open-air screenings. Many of the people who are seeing it have never seen a film before. It's touring to areas where there's no electricity--where, unlike Dili and Baucau and other urban centres, there's hasn't even been the opportunity to watch DVDs. So, as much as the film taps into a history of oral storytelling and [East Timorese] animist traditions, there wasn't a sense of the absence of filmmaking in Timor because it's essentially a new medium.

In some of the villages, there's this amazing naivety, this inability to read film. So, when you show [Beatriz's War] in some villages, they can't differentiate between reality and film. The actor who plays the Indonesian commander [Gaspar Sarmento] is Timorese, and he's often vilified, threatened, and has rocks thrown at him. At some screenings, the filmmakers get up and introduce not just the film, but what a film is; it's the start of a process of education, not just in the history of Timor, but of cinema itself. That may sound hard to believe for Australian audiences, but when we started making the film, there wasn't even a cinema in Dili; there is now, but it's only been there for eighteen months. You may well ask: why bother to make a film, then? Because there's a high level of illiteracy in Timor. But it is a right for people to be able to tell their own story; therefore, film came across as a natural medium for that.

What was it like making a film without familiar infrastructure?

The challenges [we faced in] making the film weren't as great as what people might have expected, in terms of the logistics. The local crew we worked with, once they came together as a collective, they had an incredible ability to organise. That's part of the deep cultural heritage of Timor--familial ties are very strong and people work together [... which] also comes from their experiences during the resistance movement. And a lot of the things we needed were already there: we didn't have to build any sets because the landscape, the houses, the villages --all of that was a given. …

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