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Beatriz'€™s War and us

  • Windu Jusuf

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Sun, December 21, 2014 | 11:57 am
Beatriz'€™s War and us

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 story. Former guerrillas scripted both films. An Italian leftist directed Algiers, while a left-leaning Australian co-directed Beatriz. The newly-formed governments of both nations backed the films logistically and financially.

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.

'€œWaves of applause broke out at scenes of terrorism against the French colonials, at individual acts of murder,'€ Sarris wrote. '€œAt 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 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.

Director: Bety Reis (left), one of the film'€™s co-directors, shooting on location.Director: Bety Reis (left), one of the film'€™s co-directors, shooting on location.

Under Sukarno, Indonesia helped organize the high-profile anti-colonial Asian-African Conference in 1955. Under Soeharto, it betrayed that legacy by annexing Timor Lorosae, a Portuguese colony that declared independence in 1975 following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal.

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 ultimate villain that the nation loves to hate '€” the Israelis in Palestine.

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 '€œBalibo Five'€) during the Indonesian invasion in 1975.

In 2009, the Jakarta International Film Festival could not receive permission to publicly screen Balibo. Considered '€œpolitically sensitive'€, the film was apparently not quite the right cup of tea for the country'€™s officials.

The censorship board stated that Balibo '€œcan do harm to Australian-Indonesian diplomatic relations'€.

Warrior women: Irim Tolentino as Beatriz and Augusta Soares as Teresa.Warrior women: Irim Tolentino as Beatriz and Augusta Soares as Teresa.
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?

'€œWe 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, '€œOf 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 Dec. 12, also without incident.

In contrast, on the same day, screenings of The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer'€™s latest 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 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.

Firing line: Commander Funu Lakan (bottom) portrays Celestino.Firing line: Commander Funu Lakan (bottom) portrays Celestino.
'€œAs 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 '€œgross 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?

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