What It Means to Be Indonesian After Beatriz’s War

Originally published on 21 December 2014 at The Jakarta Post


Beatriz’s War, written, co-directed, and partially financed by Timorese, has been promoted as the first film made in Timor Leste. It features a mostly Timorese cast delivering dialogue in Tetun. Beatriz’s War is set against the 1975 Indonesian invasion and decades-long occupation of East Timor (now Timor Leste), the former Portuguese colony that shares a land border with East Nusa Tenggara province on Timor Island.

The story begins with a couple, Beatriz and Tomas, who flee the invasion. Captured, they settle in Kraras, three hundred kilometers from Dili, where Beatriz has a son. Later, during a reprisal raid, Indonesian forces kill almost every man and boy in the village in a dramatic recreation of the 1983 Kraras massacre.

Thomas is arrested and “disappeared”. He returns sixteen years later, after Timor Leste is independent, claiming to have fought for the resistance. However, Beatriz begins to doubt that the man is her long-lost husband—and eventually makes a chilling discovery.

Many people involved with Beatriz’s War lived through the occupation or fought with guerrilla units. Some witnessed what happened at Kraras or had family who died in the massacre. Cast and crew alike were in tears when filming the scene, said Nick Calpakdjian, the Jakarta-based editor of Beatriz’s War. “It’s painful to all the crew to witness and going through it again. It was a quite difficult scene to shoot.”

“Without Beatriz or hundreds of thousands like her delivering messages up and down on buses or on foot through the jungle, there were no guerrilla fighters,” Nick said. “We wanted to show the importance of women who could hold a community of people together for a long time,” he added.

Produced by Dili Film Works, a local production house, the film was co-directed by Australian Luigi Acquisto and Timorese Bety Reis. According to Luigi, Beatriz’s War has been seen by more than 100,000 people, racking up a five-week run at Dili’s Platinum Cineplex Cinema in September 2013, while Timor Cinema Lorosae, a community that holds regular outdoor film screenings, brought the film to communities and villages throughout the nation.

“The film has very well been received,” said Nick. “The East Timorese are very happy to finally have their stories being told by their own people.”

The film’s A$2.2 million (US$1.6 million)-budget was funded by the filmmakers, sponsorship, in-kind investment and support from several Timor Leste government offices, including the Offices of the President and Prime Minister and the Tourism and Culture Ministry. Meanwhile, the Timorese military provided weapons, uniforms, trucks—as well as extras and actors, such as Cmdr. Funu Lakan, who played Jose dos Anjos, one of the most popular leaders of the resistance, in the film.

Support also came from former Timorese president Xanana Gusmão, Nick said. “We took the film to Xanana’s house and held a screening. He openly wept during the film and found it quite emotional. He is a big supporter of the film. He helped to raise the money and endorsed Dili Film Works from the beginning.”

While Beatriz’s War is fiction, The Jakarta Post ran a story about a woman named Beatriz, who told the Timorese Reception, Truth-seeking, and Reconciliation Commission (CAVR), of her own experience at Kraras.

“I surrendered, but my husband got away and ran to Bibileo Mountain,” Beatriz said, as quoted by the article. “Every day I was interrogated by the ABRI [the Indonesian Military] at Buikaren. My child was born in February 1984. When he was five days old, my husband surrendered. He stayed in our house for one month before he was made a TBO [operational assistant] by the ABRI. After he reported for duty he never returned. He was probably murdered the same day he was called to report.”


Beatriz and History

Beatriz’s War, the first feature film from Timor Leste, is set during the Timorese guerrilla insurgency against the Indonesian occupation and invasion. It evokes The Battle of Algiers (1965), the first film from post-independence Algeria, which explored that nation’s war of independence against France.

Similarities are not limited to the story. Former guerrillas scripted both films. An Italian leftist directed The Battle of Algiers, while a left-leaning Australian co-directed Beatriz‘s War. The newly-formed governments of both nations backed the films logistically and financially.The Battle of Algiers, made to promote the heroic role of guerrilla fighters (many of whom were in government at the time), had a huge cultural impact outside the nation’s borders, as evinced by the late film critic Andrew Sarris, who wrote at a time when students, workers and hippies took to the streets to oppose the US war in Vietnam.

“Waves of applause broke out at scenes of terrorism against the French colonials, at individual acts of murder,” Sarris wrote. “At times, there were cheers. ‘Saigon next!’ a man shouted as the Algerians blew up a crowded café in the French quarter.”

Beatriz’s War takes a different perspective and is less action-packed than The Battle of Algiers. Rather than valorizing guerrillas, the Timorese film privileges the perspective of the women who survived the massacre in Krakas. Women are shown as the ultimate victims of occupation and its long-term trauma. Their indestructibility is made a perfect metaphor for the history of the struggling nation.

However, unlike France, an age-old imperial state, Indonesia was born from decades of anti-colonial struggle. Under first President Sukarno, Indonesia helped organize the high-profile anti-colonial Asian-African Conference in 1955. Under second President Soeharto, it betrayed that legacy by annexing Timor Lorosae, a Portuguese colony that declared independence in 1975 following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal.

Augusta Soares as Teresa & Irim Tolentino as Beatriz in 'A Guerra da Beatriz'

Beatriz and Indonesia

Uniquely, Beatriz’s War depicts Indonesia under the New Order as a colonizer. In the film, the Indonesian Military (TNI), then called the ABRI, is represented at its worst—a mass-murdering enterprise whose invasion of Timor was backed and supported by the West, notably the US and Australia.

For many Indonesians, Timor Leste remains an unpleasant memory. The Timorese voted for independence in 1999, when Indonesia was at its lowest point—ravaged by Asian Financial Crisis, communal strife and secessionist movements in disparate parts of the archipelago. It was a time when the illusory comforts guarded for decades by New Order’s violent developmentalism vanished—which is why subtleties matter when talking about Timor.

Many are still reluctant to say that Timor Leste eventually achieved kemerdekaan (independence) from Indonesia. Instead, we say lepas (released), since using merdeka would imply that Indonesia was a colonizer or foreign occupier like the Japanese, the Dutch, or the Israelis—the ultimate villain that the nation loves to hate.

The last five years have witnessed a number of foreign co-productions focusing on atrocities perpetrated by the Indonesian Army or its proxies. In depicting the Timorese occupation, Beatriz’s War joins Balibo (2009), a feature film about the homicides of five Australian journalists (the “Balibo Five”) during the Indonesian invasion in 1975.

In 2009, the Jakarta International Film Festival (JIFFest) could not secure permission to publicly screen Balibo. Considered “politically sensitive”, the film was apparently not quite the right cup of tea for the country’s officials. The censorship board stated that Balibo “can do harm to Australian-Indonesian diplomatic relations”.

However, given that two years earlier a New South Wales court alleged that the Indonesian Military was implicated in the killings, it seems more likely that the fear was that screening Balibo would spark uncomfortable discussions. Given that Balibo was censored and banned, will theatergoers in Indonesia see Beatriz’s War any time soon?

“We never tried to formally distribute the film to Indonesia. I will be very surprised if local distributors want to distribute the film given its content,” said Nick, a few weeks before the film’s Indonesian premiere at Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (JAFF).

He continues, “Of course, this small film from Timor Leste would have to compete with Hollywood films. You can’t really show Indonesia in a positive light in Timor Leste, but I don’t think it’s the kind of film many people in Indonesia will run to see either.” However, the JAFF screening was attended by 82 people and no threats were reported. A screening in Jakarta organized by ruangrupa and the leftist journal IndoProgress attracted 40 people on 12 December 2014, also without incident.

In contrast, on the same day, screenings of The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary on the 1965 violence and its aftermath, were canceled or interrupted in Malang and Semarang, Central Java, by local military and anti-communist groups.


Beatriz and Us

Beatriz and her fellow survivors can tell us many things about their struggle — and some of difficulties of dealing with post-independence reality. Reconciliation has relatively been successful at the grassroots levels: many ex-militia members previously taking refuge in Indonesia have returned home since 2010. Nevertheless, at a political level, Indonesia and Timor Leste have made little progress, according to Maleve Guerra, a former Timorese guerrilla and clandestine activist.

“As long as the butchers of Timor don’t stand proper trial, our job is not yet done. Independence is only the beginning. The trial of the generals would testify that our struggle in defending independence from occupation is justified,” Maleve said at a recent screening of Beatriz at the ruangrupa art space in Jakarta.

Beatriz’s War reminds us that our ugliest national problems endure. It allows us to reflect on how people in other parts of the nation might use cinema to explore exactly how the Indonesian Military and the government continue to counter secessionist aspirations.

We might, for example, imagine people in Aceh making a feature on Rumoh Geudong, a military post in Pidie run by Kopassus commandos. An investigation of Rumoh Geudong, also known as the slaughterhouse, and several other incidents, including the Bumi Flora massacre, led the National Human Rights Commission to call the TNI led anti-insurgency campaign in Aceh a “gross human rights violation”.

In the end, several questions remain: what does it mean to be French after seeing Battle of Algiers? Or American after watching Season of the Whirlwind (1978) from Vietnam? Or Dutch after viewing Usmar Ismail’s Darah dan Doa (1950)? Before the Timor invasion and occupation, we, as a formerly colonized people, may have conveniently asked such questions. Today, we’re privileged to have a similar question put to us: what does it mean to be an Indonesian after seeing Beatriz’s War?

Originally published at The Jakarta Post as three separate stories: Beatriz’s Wars and Ours; Beatriz’s War: Timor Leste’s first feature film; and Of Gérard Depardieu, Timor and reconciliation