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. There he married his childhood sweetheart – whom he last saw when he was just 10-years-old.
“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 – more than 150 men and children - in retribution for an attack by the Timorese resistance.
In the film, a man claiming to be Tomas returns to the village, but Beatriz becomes convinced he is an imposter and he is later discovered to be a member of the brutal Indonesian militia.
Jose, who plays Tomas, said while his character was one of the bad guys, it’s a complex situation and he does have some sympathy for him.
“When you look at our history, a lot of the former militia men wanted to stay in Timor, they didn’t want to move countries, so many of them have come back and pretended they were heroes,” he said. “They are just desperate to survive like all of us, but in a small country it is hard to get away with lies like that.
“Through the choice that Beatriz must make, the film also shows the choice that all the people of Timor must make – forgiveness or justice. Do we arrest people for crimes and put them on trial, or do we let it all go? It is a balance between whether you accept what happened or not, and whether you want to move on.”
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 an independence referendum in 1999, the result was overwhelming support for independence.
The Indonesian militia reacted with a murderous rampage, killing hundreds and burning towns to the ground. An Australian-led international peacekeeping force intervened to end the chaos and paved the way for a United Nations mission to help East Timor make the transition to 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.
“Because we were colonized first by the Portuguese over 400 years ago, and were then under Indonesia, 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.”
While the film is operating on a miniscule budget – stopping and starting according to funds being raised - one thing that can’t be denied is its authenticity.
Jose had a small part in the 2009 movie Balibo, about the execution of five Australian journalists in 1975, and a part in the ABC tele-movie Answered by Fire. For most of the 12 main actors however 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 in Dili in 1991, where more than 250 people were killed at Santa Cruz Cemetery.
“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 a more natural kind of acting and we let our feelings tell the story. It is difficult at times and very emotional, because some scenes remind us of things that really happened.”
And that goes for the hundreds of extras too – from the women in the villages and former resistance fighters playing themselves, to the soldiers borrowed from East Timor’s army and dressed in cast-off Indonesian army uniforms.
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.
For all involved it’s long days, little pay, and a constant fight to raise funds. Yet after 500 years of foreign colonisation and occupation, it is the hard-won opportunity for Jose and his collagues to tell their story.
“We are doing this for passion, not for money,” the 35-year-old said.
“By telling this story it is also our way to move forward. We have to reconcile ourselves with the Indonesians. We don’t have to be angry all the time and make more enemies with our neighbor. At the end of the day East Timor is independent now and Indonesia is our neighbor.
“We must leave history as history, and make a new way forward.”
To find out more about the production, or to donate, visit www.fairtradefilms.com.au/fundraising.html