ACU graduate Jose da Costa was born in the jungles of East Timor as his family fled the Indonesian occupying force. Thirty-five years later he is starring in the country’s first feature film, writes Alisse Grafitti
When Jose da Costa stood on the deck of a rickety fishing boat and watched East Timor fade into the distance, he didn’t know if he would ever set foot in his homeland again.
Born after the Fretilin political party declared independence, and Indonesian troops stormed into East Timor, Jose grew up fighting in the country’s clandestine resistance movement.
Eventually in too much danger, he escaped to Australia in 1995, was granted refugee status and settled in Melbourne.
After completing his Victorian Certificate of Education, Jose studied arts and education at ACU’s Ballarat Campus – thinking always of the day he could return home.
In 2004, the year he graduated and two years after East Timor was recognised as an independent nation, Jose returned to Dili.
“It was very moving for me the first time I came back to my country,” Jose said. “I had been away for such a long time. When I got back it was an independent country – and a place that I had fought and lost so much for.”
That place will soon be encapsulated in A Guerra da Beatriz – or Beatrice’s War. The first film written, performed and directed by East Timorese, with support from Australian filmmakers, it is also the first written in their language – Tetum.
The love story spans the Indonesian occupation, from 1975 to 1999, and tells the tale of Beatriz, whose husband Tomas goes missing after the Kraras massacre of 1983.
Kraras, a real village and real event, came to be known as the village of widows after Indonesian soldiers massacred every male in the village in retribution for an attack by the Timorese resistance.
The people of East Timor suffered some of the worst atrocities of modern times, and at least 200,000 Timorese died as a result of Indonesia’s 25-year occupation. When international pressure forced Indonesia to allow a referendum in 1999, the result was overwhelming support for independence.
In April this year the country went to the polls for its second presidential election as a free nation. And for the actors in A Guerra da Beatriz, it’s a poignant time to be putting their history and their language on film.
“There has never been a single film produced in our language, so we are making history,” Jose said. “We have our independence, and we are making our own films. For me it is a happy time.”
Jose had a small part in the 2009 movie Balibo, however for most of the 12 main actors it is their big debut. It is also an emotional one, with many of the scenes mirroring their own traumatic experiences during the occupation. Jose’s father was executed by Indonesian soldiers for working with the Falintil, and Jose himself was arrested and tortured after participating in a pro-independence demonstration.
“All the actors have experienced the occupation for themselves,” he said. “We act on our feelings based on our experience and our history. It is difficult at times and very emotional, because some scenes remind us of things that really happened.”
While the film is the first for the fledgling Dili Film Works, the cast and crew have been assisted by Australia’s FairTrade Films. Jose and Timorese director Bety Reis are being mentored by Melbourne director Luigi Acquisto and his wife, film producer Stella Zammataro.