Director Alex Meillier’s newest film “Alias Ruby Blade” will premiere in the UK at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in mid- March.
East Timor, one of the world’s newest nations, comprises half of a small island in Southeast Asia and has been a centre of struggle for close to 30 years. The country, which gained its independence in 2002, was under Portuguese control up until 1975. However, soon after East Timor was decolonized and declared independent, it was taken over by Indonesia.
Under the Indonesian occupation, East Timor and its people suffered greatly. Over half the population became refugees after they took to the mountains in order to flee from the on-going violence in the cities.
There was genocide and great poverty at this time. This is where the heroine of the Alex Meillier’s film comes into play.
Kirsty Sword Gusmao was a young Australian who joined the team of the ground breaking Yorkshire television documentary, “Cold Blood,” that just happened to film the massacre of hundreds of Timorese. This event changed her life.
After this, Kirsty became a courier for the Timorese resistance. She worked to smuggle correspondence through to political prisoners, including Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the resistance movement, who later became the Prime Minister as well as Kirsty’s husband.
“Alias Ruby Blade” follows Kirsty’s story and East Timor’s struggle for independence, by using some of Kirsty’s own footage along with interviews with key players in the resistance movement.
Alex Meillier spoke with The Prisma about his new film and the story of the woman behind it.
In 2005, my wife and I were working for the United Nations mission in support of East Timor as a documentary unit. We lived in the country for several months and we traveled around, extensively interviewing former resistance leaders, UN officials, government officials and scores of ordinary Timorese.
What exactly did you do for that documentary?
We did a number of reports and a lot of photography for the UN and we produced a short film that was meant to be a summary of that section of the mission. When we left the country, I was so moved by the experience of living in East Timor and getting to understand, first hand, the incredible courage and inspirational story of their nonviolent struggle of resistance.
When we came back to New York, it became clear to us how little was really understood about what happened in East Timor. We felt compelled to try and tell the story in a way that would be character driven; using a personal narrative to craft a dramatic film that could resonate with a wide audience of people who would be drawn into it by universal themes.
How did you begin your work?
We started reading the memoirs of key players of the resistance; most of the people we interviewed for the film had written books on their experiences such as Jose Ramos- Horta and Constancio Pinto.
Well, we knew that the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, would need to be a focal point in any film about East Timor and we also knew he had an Australian wife and that she was an important humanitarian. She was greatly loved and respected by the Timorese people. However, it was only after reading her autobiography that we found out that she had played such a central, pivotal role in the resistance.
We knew that Kirsty Sword Gusmao had carried a film camera wherever she went, and when we asked her about the tapes, she answered: “Oh yes, they’re in a box somewhere. I’m not sure what condition they are in, but you’re welcome to come and take a look.” Being documentary filmmakers, it was too great an opportunity to resist.
What did you think of her footage?
When we saw what was on the tapes, we were absolutely blown away. We knew that we had something really special and that this was a story that just had to be told. And that was how it began. We reached out to her five years ago and we have been shooting the film for the past three years and are now just beginning to get the film out.
How did you incorporate Kirsty’s footage into the film?
Her footage gave the film a very personal angle, which was what we wanted, so most of the scenes were shot by her. We treated her footage with reverence and respect and tried to assemble and interpret what she was trying to capture at the time.
Kirsty’s story begins in 1990 with her first trip to East Timor and we see this as a metaphor for the way in which the outside world woke up to what was happening in East Timor. In 1990, the country had just opened up since the Indonesian invasion of 1975. Tourists were just trickling into the country and Kirsty posed as a tourist while she was on a secret mission.
What was her job, while in East Timor?
She was bringing messages back and forth to the Timorese who were exiled in Melbourne, Australia. She knew where to go and she spoke Indonesian because she had studied it before. She had an interest in Timor and she was kind of in the right place at the right time when the Yorkshire documentary team decided to go into the country disguised as tourists. They needed a translator and a guide, and she filled that role perfectly.
The film itself has a perfect three act structure: in act one, Kirsty goes into the country for the first time with the hopes of being a documentary film maker. When the film team captures the massacre on tape, it gives birth to a world- wide solidarity movement with the Timorese independence struggle. This changes her life.
What did she decide to do after this?
She put the idea of becoming a documentary filmmaker on the shelf so that she could fully support the human rights struggle of the Timorese. Act two is where she becomes a courier for the Timorese resistance. Several characters that were interviewed for the film said that she was the perfect person for the job: a young, beautiful woman. She did not fit the description of a left wing activist.
She appeared to be very innocuous and she took on the codename: Ruby Blade
What did she do after this?
Kirsty was given responsibility for the political prisoners who were being held in Jakarta. It was at this time, Xanana Gusmao, the most wanted man in Timor, and the Che Guevara- like leader of the Timorese resistance was captured in Dili and brought to prison. Kirsty was in charge of smuggling correspondence in and out of prison for him. At first, it was like letters being hidden in the bottom of shoes, next audiotapes and finally they were able to bring Xanana a mobile phone and a video camera. He was able to control the resistance from inside the prison.
They essentially fell in love through their correspondence. This is another kind of metaphor: how the weakest human beings are able to overcome adversity through our capacity for love.
Was it a challenge to incorporate Kirsty’s footage into the film?
It was a challenge but I think we were really successful. Her personal journey really encapsulated the birth of a nation. Since we wanted this film to have a big, positive ending and we wanted it to speak to a universal audience, we told the story of the birth of the nation of East Timor through the birth of Kirsty and Xanana’s first son, Alexandre, who was born on free and independent Timorese soil.
When the new government had finally ousted the dictator, they wanted to end the “Timor issue” once and for all and decided to have a referendum for independence. The Indonesians may have believed that the Timorese would vote to remain part of Indonesia, but people came and voted for independence with their pots, pans and other belongings, knowing that the outcome would lead to violence. They courageously voted, and then took to the mountains and became refugees.
What are you most proud of?
I am particularly proud of the way that we filmed “re-enactments.” We tried to shoot the scenes where Kirsty is under the codename, Ruby Blade, without showing her face. You never see Kirsty’s face until her identity is exposed and she has to flee the country. It is sort of like a film within a film.
Today, Kirsty is an incredibly distinguished humanitarian and, by making this film, we are exposing her story to a whole new audience which will hopefully support her work and help the people of East Timor, who live in extreme poverty. We want people to see this film and walk out of the theatre with the hunger to know more about what happened in Timor and we want them to engage in the story and find out how they can help.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival will be taking place in London from March 13th to the 22nd, and Alias Ruby Blade will be playing on the 19th and 20th of March. The Prisma was informed by Alex Meillier that Kirsty Sword Gusmao will be unable to attend the film festival because she is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “If I know Kirsty, her struggle with cancer will be an inspiration for everyone. She will overcome this as she has overcome other challenges in her life.”