When vet documentary director Tom Zubrycki and his team commenced filming this portrait of East Timorese independence leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jose Ramos Horta two years ago, they could not have anticipated the dramatic events that shape and energize their film. But they were lucky, and have taken every advantage of the evolving drama that changed the life of their protagonist. Result is a gripping documentary that will be much in demand by TV programmers the world over, and which should also earn fest exposure in the coming months.
Ramos Horta was a freedom fighter in the small territory of East Timor when the Portuguese colonialists withdrew in 1975. Named foreign minister of his technically nonexistent country, Ramos Horta went into exile after the invasion and annexation of East Timor by Indonesia.
For the next 24 years, Ramos Horta worked tirelessly as his occupied country’s spokesman, lobbying at the United Nations and with sympathetic democracies for support in his campaign for liberation, while in the mountains of Timor a guerrilla army fought the occupying forces. Over the years, 200,000 East Timorese died, but it was not until 1991, when the Indonesian army massacred civilians participating in a Santa Cruz ceremony in Dili, that the conflict drew world attention.
Zubrycki was given considerable access to his subject, and Ramos Horta comes across as an intelligent, witty, urbane man not without his flaws (he admits on camera to marital infidelities while in New York). His tenacity comes across strongly, especially in the later stages of the film, which chronicle the events of 1999 — the resignation of Indonesia’s President Suharto, the reluctant agreement to a referendum on the issue of independence in East Timor by his successor, Habibe, and the overwhelming success of the vote itself.
There follows, however, the appalling, savage rampage by pro-Indonesian militia, who raze Dili to the ground and kill thousands while Indonesian foreign minister Alitas assures the world everything is under control — until President Clinton forces the Indonesian government to allow an international peacekeeping force to oversee matters in the independent but crippled East Timor.
While all this is going on, Ramos Horta is far away, in New Zealand (lobbying Clinton at an international conference) or Australia (visiting with his formidable mother, Natalina, who lives in Sydney) or New York. Part of his difficulty lies uniting the sometimes fractious independence factions.
The tragedy of the post-referendum killings and violence in East Timor gives the film a powerful climax, which is followed by Ramos Horta’s return to his homeland, after nearly a quarter-century, to a tumultuous reception.
Patient, fly-on-the-wall approach to filmmaking pays off, thanks in large part to the charisma of its subject and the unforeseen events that provide an upbeat ending. Zubrycki makes interesting use of newsreel footage, which is shown in black-and-white with slabs of red inserted. At 81 minutes, film is almost too short for its powerful and involving subject matter.