Sunday, December 03, 2006

[Asian Festival of First Films] A Hero's Journey

This year alone we have a number of documentaries made by local filmmakers being showcased - Singapore Gaga, Passabe and of course, A Hero's Journey. All the films have been shown during Cine.SG's screening, and Singapore Gaga has gone on with a small scaled commercial screening at the Arts House, playing to full houses in almost all the sessions. I would have caught A Hero's Journey earlier but the tickets to the Cine.SG screening was sold out, much to my surprise. It could be that Passabe perked interest in Timor Leste, and hence, director Grace Phan's documentary had some runway of information leading to its screening the week after.

But I suppose the reason behind that sold out screening, was because people were curious about the premise of the documentary. Timor Leste is one of the world's youngest nation, and in recent times, it fell prey to violence yet again, a period after the Indonesian occupation, and after self-independence was proclaimed amid the violence that erupted thereafter by local militia backed by Indonesian troops.

Probably one of the rare films made with the assistance of, sanctioned and even narrated by a head of state, A Hero's Journey traces the beginnings of the struggle for independence, of now President Xanana Gusmao's beginnings as a guerilla, to his imprisonment, and his presidency. He narrates to the viewer the background of this struggle, and of the challenges that lie ahead for this fledging nation. The camera follows him around as he visits villages seeking reconciliation and the seeking of closure from their past. Throughout we are presented interviews with both Gusmao, as well as villagers, and through them, try to understand the various issues that they face.

There was one line which the president said, which I thought summed up his feelings - that once as a guerilla your fight was focused and singular, and that is to win the war. But now as part of the government, your fight is now concentrated on many more fronts, each with its own urgency and importance, like education and the allocation of resources. It definitely is many more times as challenging to lift the standard of living of your countrymen.

And films such as these help us understand, as well as to take a glimpse into a land not seen by many. There are many picturesque moments in the film, which showed the beautiful scenery of the country, and the simple, yet happy, way of life. If the president's quarters is as makeshift as shown, you could expect that the conditions for ordinary folks may not be any better. Yet, these guys have found balance and peace, not through material wealth, but by reconciling and forgiving those who have done evil things against them. Peace of mind, comes from forgiveness.

This central theme of forgiveness rings through vividly midway through the documentary, despite having many different ideas presented, interwoven with the documentary footage of Gusmao's time in prison, as well as those taken during the violent massacres, during Gusmao's guerilla days, and even the reconciliatory visits made by Indonesia's military ex-headhoncho General Wiranto. While the ending was a bit of a tangent off the general feel of the movie - where a visit to an indigenous tribe was made, it just demonstrated the many excellent material that the filmmakers had gathered, and found difficult to decide what to put in, and what to leave out.

There were many questions which came fast and furious from the audience, and producer Edmond Wong was on hand to address those queries. Things like how much of the documentary is scripted, and how much is actually original ideas from Gusmao himself. Edmond explained that Gusmao had plenty of ideas discussed and statements made throughout the film shoot, and Grace had to find ways to gel those ideas together into a more coherent documentary, and they had settled on the strong theme of forgiveness.

One other question asked was whether the movie was made with the intention of an international audience or for local audience. While it's made to be released internationally to raise awareness, funds, and for people to learn more about the country, it's purpose, as far as Gusmao is concerned, is to show it to the locals, that through the movie, as a medium, it can bring its message across in an effective way. They haven't gotten around to dub it into the local dialects (since most of the locals are illiterate and it makes no sense to subtitle the film in the local language), but Gusmao had been unavailable, and also of the recent turmoil. But the filmmakers hope to be able to release this for the people of Timor Leste.

While other movies about TImor Leste had been banned in Indonesia before, the filmmakers were surprised that this one will make its way to the Jakarta International Film Festival, so that's probably gonna be a milestone. Do watch this if you have the opportunity to do so!

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