Subject: Xanana's Journey of Forgiveness [JP Film Review]

The Jakarta Post Saturday, December 16, 2006

Journey of Forgiveness in Xanana Documentary

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Timor, tomb of a soul that didn't perish in the mists of a history lost in the distance of legends

Timor, where people are born to die for hope in tearings of pain in tearings of flesh in tearings of soul in tearings of the very freeedom achieved through death

Extract of Esperances Rasgadas (Shattered Hopes), Xanana Gusmao

The poem above, recited in the original Portuguese by its writer, Timor Leste President Xanana Gusmao, is gut- wrenching enough for anyone familiar with the recent history of that country.

It becomes all the more poignant when juxtaposed with wide sweeps of the stunningly beautiful scenery that exists in Timor Leste.

Thus starts the documentary, A Hero's Journey, the directorial debut by Singapore-based filmmaker Grace Phan. It is all about forgiveness, telling the story of Timor Leste's struggle for independence, as seen through the eyes of its president.

Xanana is both a genial narrator and host. If it were not for the nature of its subject matter it might appear at the start to the casual viewer to be just another run-of-the- mill travel documentary.

Xanana seems totally at ease in front of the camera, and one gets the impression that much of what was filmed was done in one take.

At one moment he is taking us on a tour through his presidential offices -- in reality the barely refurbished shell of a complex of buildings -- beckoning us eagerly to take a peek through a doorway here, a corridor there.

At another, he moves, clad in Timor ikat (cloth) among his adoring people, waving, smiling and frequently hugging them in tearful silence -- a silence that speaks volumes through the intensity of the emotions it involves.

Xanana introduces us to a young women with a nasty scar across her nose, the result of a vicious swipe with a machete. Her attackers also murdered members of her family before her eyes.

In another telling episode he finds himself face to face with the man who revealed his whereabouts while he was leading a guerrilla campaign against the Indonesian Military. (Xanana was subsequently captured and incarcerated in Cipinang prison, East Jakarta, for seven years.)

The bear hug -- with no words exchanged -- says all that could be said about the extraordinary power of forgiveness, the abiding theme of the film. "Forgiveness, says Xanana, "is a kind of deep courage ... the way to live in peace."

At what is arguably the film's most tear-jerking moment, Xanana is reunited with an old woman who sheltered and hid him during his guerrilla days. Possessing little more than the clothes on her back, she sold what she could to raise money to buy him urgently needed malaria medication.

Xanana draws her in close with another hug: "Her son died," he says, through tears. After a pregnant pause he adds, "I am your son."

A short scene features first lady Kirsty Sword Gusmao. She has often been asked how her husband is able to give so much emotionally, without being totally drained. On the contrary, she says, he somehow finds he gains strength from the experience.

Cynics might think that perhaps it is politically expedient to show forgiveness toward Indonesia, given its next-door- neighbor status and that the two nations will have to learn how to get along, no matter what.

Xanana's forgiveness comes across as sincere, though, with nothing of the politician's guile. However, it is firmly rooted in a realistic perception that life must go on.

"If we can forgive, we liberate ourselves from all bad sentiments," he says.

He also has a steady eye to the future, the film showing him receiving President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Dili as a state guest -- and the first democratically elected president of Indonesia.

Xanana is currently in town as a guest of JiFFest to watch a special screening of the film in the company of Indonesian government and military officials past and present, diplomats from many countries, UN representatives, business, religious and civil society leaders, Timorese resident in Indonesia and others.

(A Hero's Journey will be screened for the general public Dec. 17 at 4:30 p.m. at EX Studio 4)

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service


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