The challenge of return


Starting From Zero
A documentary by Mandy King & Fabio Cavadini
Screening on SBS, Friday, August 17, 8.30pm


Starting from Zero profiles the return home in October 1999 of three East Timorese exiles following the decisive vote by the East Timorese people for independence from Indonesia.

Each left East Timor for different reasons. Ines Almeida, then aged 12, fled to Australia with her family during the civil war in August 1975. In exile, she dedicated herself to resistance work while building a career in the public service.

Lola dos Reis left to study at a Lisbon university in 1974. Unable to return home after the Indonesian invasion, she married and moved to Mozambique where her children were born. In 1985, she migrated to Australia to be closer to East Timor and to provide a better future for her children.

Jacinto Tinocu left in 1966 looking for adventure. He studied in Australia and worked overseas.

When we first meet them, Ines is returning to work with the National Council of Timorese Resistance President Xanana Gusmao, Lola has a two-week contract with the Christian Children's Fund (CCF) and Jacinto is going home to look for his extended family.

The film captures the desolation and desecration of East Timor in the wake of vengeful Indonesian military and militia reprisals that followed the independence referendum. Graffiti on the wall of a gutted building where Jacinto finds some of his relatives reads bakar (burn). When Lola and her co-workers look for an office for the CCF, they are taken to a house stained throughout with the blood of a woman who was raped and murdered there.

Later scenes reveal the reality of the struggle for survival in East Timor under the United Nations administration: children pick their way through smoking heaps of refuse; tensions build among unemployed youth resentful of foreigners' privileges and growing social and economic disparities.

The backdrop of reconstruction provides the context in which Ines, Lola and Jacinto reconstruct their identities as "returnees". The film provides sensitive portrayals of all three. Lola, the activist and mother, struggles between loyalty to her country and her commitment to her teenage children in Australia. Jacinto is also viewed through a familial lens. "I have found my family", he says, "this is what brought me here."

In a moving scene, Jacinto is reunited with an elderly uncle after more than 30 years. "I'm your little nephew!", says the 50-something Jacinto as his uncle breaks down, overcome with emotion.

It is from Ines that we gain a sense of the real tragedy of exile. Return brings the realisation that her survival in exile was based on the premise that she could one day return to her roots. Now, however, the biggest challenge is being "an outsider, being an activist [in exile] doesn't mean anything".

The film makers, Mandy King and Fabio Cavadini, choose not to intrude analytically into the film's narratives, preferring to visually underscore issues raised by the protagonists.

Even so, there are critical issues that are not taken up. Jacinto's advice to some young Timorese to learn "technical Portuguese", for example, provides a good opportunity to ask why and in whose interest? Ines, Lola and Jacinto are part of a Portuguese-educated generation socialised within a very different situation to that of the younger, Indonesian-educated generation, many of whom were also forced into exile following the Dili Massacre in 1991. This is an important difference which needs to be explored in the context of return and reconciliation.

The difficulties Ines experiences as an unmarried, career woman returning to fulfil a key role in "government" in a patriarchal, conservative, Catholic society is another unprobed issue. Unlike Jacinto (as a nephew) and Lola (a mother) she cannot be easily placed. We are shown that her neither fully "insider" nor "outsider" position, and her public service experience, mean that she can successfully act as advocate for local Timorese, but no attempt is made to unravel the complexity of the challenge her particular presence represents.

Clearly, it is not the intention of the film makers to intervene in these debates. Some viewers may feel frustrated at this politically low-key approach. Nevertheless, King and Cavadini offer us a unique perspective on East Timor's unfolding story.