A moving, thought-provoking docu, “Punitive Damage” is solid TV fare. Pic centers on the struggle for justice on the part of the mother of a New Zealand citizen who was killed in East Timor in 1991. Set for arthouse distribution in Oz following its world preem at the Sydney fest, the film should stir up interest throughout Australasia because of public awareness of the tragic events there. In other territories, thoughtful TV channels should find a slot for this polished and lucid effort.
The people of East Timor, a colony of Portugal situated between Australia and Indonesia, expected independence when the Portuguese dictatorship fell in 1975; instead, with the tacit approval of both the U.S. and Australian governments, the tiny country was forcibly annexed to Indonesia by invading troops. The death toll was high, and included a group of Australian journalists who were covering the event. For many years, nascent independence movements in East Timor were firmly crushed by a strong Indonesian military presence, and there are well-documented incidents of the torture and execution of anyone standing for independence.
In 1991, a delegation of United Nations and Portuguese reps was due to visit the region to assess the situation, and the local people hoped for independence at last. Many of them bravely made their positions clear in the lead-up to the visit; when the international group abruptly canceled its mission at the last moment, those supporting independence were exposed to reprisal. On Nov. 12, while mourning a young man killed by the military in the capital, Dili, unarmed demonstrators were fired on by Indonesian troops; approximately 200 were killed. One of the victims was 21-year-old Kamal Bamadhaj.
Kamal’s father was Malaysian and his mother, Helen Todd, a New Zealander. A Kiwi citizen who had been radicalized while attending university in Sydney, he became active in regional student politics and was especially sympathetic to the East Timorese cause. Ultimately, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Annie Goldson’s potent film consists of interviews with Kamal’s still-grieving mother, his Aussie girlfriend, a sister and witnesses to the Dili massacre. Also appearing are the American lawyers who successfully prosecuted a landmark punitive damages case in U.S. courts, a case that resulted in a $ 23 million fine against Sintong Panjaitan, the Indonesian general responsible for the massacre. The money is unlikely to be paid, however; Panjaitan reportedly dismissed the U.S. court decision as “a joke.”
Video footage shot by an exceedingly brave British cameraman, Max Stahl, inside the cemetery where the massacre occurred, is powerfully used, but perhaps the film’s most moving moments involve the murdered man’s soft-spoken mother, who reveals how she flew to Indonesia upon hearing of her son’s death but faced every kind of official obstruction. Eventually she was handed over a body she could not identify, and there is still some doubt that the corpse was her son.
Docu is simply but potently handled, and benefits a great deal from the soundtrack presence of an East Timorese choir, Hananu Kore A’an. Production values are excellent for this 35mm release.