Three decades on from an influential documentary, Peter Gordon tells Yvette Huddleston about retracing his steps.
In 1990 filmmaker Peter Gordon was driving across Ilkley Moor on his way to work at Yorkshire Television where he was a producer-director when he heard a radio interview that would change his life – and eventually alter the course of history for a small South-East Asian nation.
“There was a woman speaking on Woman’s Hour whose husband – an Australian journalist – had been killed, along with his film crew, by the Indonesian army when they invaded East Timor in 1975,” says Gordon, who at the time was working on YTV’s documentary strand First Tuesday. “I had never heard of East Timor and we were always looking for stories so as soon as I got to the office, I found out the name of the woman and went to speak to her the next day.” The Australian journalist was Greg Shackleton and he and his four colleagues were the last western film crew to have filmed in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, since it had been occupied by Indonesia. In the troubles since the Indonesian occupation around a third of the population had been killed.
Shackleton’s widow Shirley, who had been campaigning on behalf of East Timor since her husband’s death, put Gordon in touch with Tapol, an organisation based in England that was looking at human rights abuses in Indonesia, Cafod (the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) and Arnold Kohen, a lobbyist for East Timor. Gordon then began to research the area and try to establish links with the Timorese independence fighters who had fled to the mountains when the Indonesian army invaded and they were still hiding out there. He was helped in his research by Oxford University historian Dr Peter Carey, a specialist in East Timor, who introduced him to Kirsty Sword, an Australian based in Oxford who had travelled to East Timor the previous year, so had good local knowledge, and who could speak both Portuguese and the Indonesian language Bahasa. “I spent the next year or so working out what we wanted to do – and what we could do – as well as establishing the veracity of the claims,” says Gordon.
The plan was to take a three person crew – Kirsty, Gordon and a YTV cameraman – to film undercover investigating Indonesia’s occupation of the country and its independence movement. Then Gordon discovered that Max Stahl, a former Blue Peter presenter turned freelance cameraman, was going to East Timor to film on his own. “What he did was to go to places where there was conflict, shoot footage and then sell it to news networks,” says Gordon. “We got in touch with him and asked him to come on board with us.” He agreed and they set off.
“I felt all along that we were taking a calculated risk and the odds were in our favour,” says Gordon. “It was Indonesia’s International Year of Tourism – so it wouldn’t have looked good if something bad had happened to a group of western people – and we had the back-up of everyone back at base in Leeds.” He does admit, however, that there were some hairy moments. “On almost the first night we were there we went to have dinner at a nice hotel in Dili, because as tourists that is what you would do. Some of the waiters came up to us and said ‘we know what you are doing here – good luck’. We didn’t know whether they were spies trying to get something out of us or whether they were involved with the resistance.” On another occasion, after losing his passport, Gordon needed to quickly get to an office to report the loss. “A Timorese guy offered me a lift on the back of his motorbike. Halfway there he stopped – in the middle of nowhere – I wondered what he was going to do, but he just said to me, ‘You have to understand that we are being tortured and killed’. I believed him.” After about three weeks of filming, Gordon decided they had enough footage and he and Kirsty headed for home, stopping off in Australia to interview Timorese refugees, leaving Max behind with the brief to film a Portuguese delegation that was due to arrive.
“I came back to England and started editing the film,” says Gordon. “We didn’t really know where Max was and the next thing I knew, I got a phone call from him saying ‘there will be a package coming to you and I think you will find it very interesting.’” While Max was still in East Timor waiting for the Portuguese delegation, he captured on film something that would reverberate around the world. He was filming a peaceful demonstration by pro-independence protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili when it was attacked by Indonesian soldiers who shot randomly at the terrified crowds, brutally murdering 250 people. Showing extraordinary courage, Max hid amongst the wounded and continued filming – despite the obvious danger to himself – and then managed to smuggle the tapes out of the country. “When I received the material I set about getting it through to all the news networks everywhere,” says Gordon. “I basically ensured that the material got out round the world and then got back to cutting the film but because of the new material around 50 per cent of what I had already done was replaced by the images of the massacre.”
The completed film – Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor – was broadcast on ITV in Yorkshire Television’s First Tuesday strand in January 1992 and was watched by around three million viewers. It was shown in the Houses of Parliament and at the United Nations and went on to win several international awards. Twenty years later, Gordon went back to East Timor to film what had happened to the country in the intervening years – it finally got its independence in 1999 – and also to track the stories of Kirsty and Max. After the first film, Kirsty continued to take an interest in East Timor and began to campaign on behalf of its independence movement. Through this work she got to know guerilla leader Xanana Gusmao, writing to letters to him and later visiting him while he was in an Indonesian prison. They eventually fell in love and married in 2000 and they now have three young sons. Xanana became his country’s first president when East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century in May 2002. In 2007 he became Prime Minister. Kirsty is not only the First Lady of East Timor but also works tirelessly for the Alola Foundation, a charity she set up in 2001 to help victims of the violence of the Indonesian occupation, and to improve the educational standards in the country. Max, too, has settled in East Timor where he is training young Timorese in filmmaking and creating the country’s national film archive – beginning with the footage he shot in November 1991. “Max is a national hero in East Timor,” says Gordon. “His footage absolutely did change the course of history because for the first time it showed the world what was going on and it couldn’t be denied.”
Entitled Bloodshot: The Dreams and Nightmares of East Timor, the new film revisits the making of the first film and includes excerpts of Max’s harrowing footage of the Santa Cruz massacre. There are interviews with Max, Kirsty, Xanana and some of the former guerillas, as well as with ordinary people who lost relatives in the massacre. It is a very moving account of a nation and a people struggling to heal the wounds of its violent past, while at the same time looking towards the future with hope. There have been disturbances since independence and even an assassination attempt in 2009 on Xanana and the then Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta. “I have talked to people who know more about developing countries, especially those that have suffered so much trauma – and it is really early days yet,” says Gordon. “It is still one of the poorest countries in the world and all the divisions that will have been caused by the situation have not been sorted out.” So far, to Gordon’s disappointment, no broadcasters have been interested in buying the film, but he has been showing it at universities and to Timorese communities around the UK. There will be a special screening, followed by a Q&A, at Ilkley Playhouse next month.
For Gordon going back to make his latest film helped him to realise what an extraordinary experience he had been through when making the first one. “You don’t really reflect on the impact at the time,” he says. “But now I understand that I am really lucky to have had the opportunity to do that – very few of us get the chance to make an impact with what we do. It did make an impact and it did lead to change and I feel really privileged to have been part of that.”
Bloodshot: The Dreams and Nightmares of East Timor will be shown at Ilkley Playhouse on January 12 at 8pm. Tickets on 01943 605239 or www.ilkleyplayhouse.co.uk