East Timor's nightmare relived on stage

Paulo Castro in Massacre
Sunday, April 26, 2015

Massacre is an explosive theatre work about the politics and violence of East Timor. Produced by Stone/Castro (Australia) and Colectivo 84 (Portugal), it features John Romao as “Timor” and Paulo Castro as “East”.

They work with “weapons of grotesque, sarcasm and a thrash metal soundtrack to create a scenic, hypnotic and dangerous game. The mutant metamorphosis of Australia, Indonesia and Portugal make for an in-your-face confrontation to the East Timor crisis.”

The show is touring next month. Green Left Weekly's Chris Peterson spoke with Castro, who is also the show's director.

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East Timor released its first feature film last year to great acclaim. Do you think art plays a big role in empowering people?

Yes, art can play a big role in empowering people, especially when the content is political and social. I don't think with theatre and films we can change the world, but we can get the people thinking about what their roles are in this decadent society.

Like Edward Bond said, all theatre needs to be violent to report the bad humans we are. If the society is violent, the theatre immediately needs to be violent too. Theatre needs to reflect on why we are so violent. One sentence we say in the play is very strong: “Timor was born in a cemetery.”

Were you involved in the campaign to liberate Timor?

Yes, I was involved. I was in Porto Portugal when the massacres happened in Timor [in 1999]. People in Portugal screamed very loud.

I never saw something like that. The people invaded the streets of Porto and Lisbon, shouting and crying. I never saw Portugal so united in one mission. It was incredible how the people in Portugal have power, like the Portuguese revolution of April 1974 [when a decades-long fascist dictatorship was overthrown].

I had friends who went in boats on a peace mission to East Timor, and they were not allowed to enter Timor because Indonesia was prepared to put down the boat full of artists from Portugal who wanted to just give flowers to the people of East Timor. It was horrible.

The image that touched me watching TV in Portugal was of a massacre where we saw East Timor people praying in Portuguese before they were killed. It was too much for us. I was in the streets screaming, but this time not against the police, because the police were on our side. They protested too, the army protested too, the politicians protested too. It was incredible.

When we began to receive East Timorese people in Portugal after the massacres, we were like brothers. I think Portugal felt guilty about abandoning East Timor [when it withdrew as the colonial power in 1975]. But Portugal in the 1970s did not agree with colonies.

When the revolution happened, Portugal abandoned its colonies in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea and East Timor. The soldiers refused to fight. My father was a soldier and he refused go to Africa to defend the colonies.

But the form of our leaving of Timor was wrong, because Indonesia invaded and occupied it. Many of the criminals responsible for that occupation were not brought to justice.

Did you get to visit East Timor while researching the show?

No, but I was in contact with some people who fled Timor for Portugal. I have a lot of friends in Portugal who are from Timor, they helped me with information and later I made contact in Australia with more people.

We have a scene in the play where two Indonesian police explain how they kill without mercy. That scene, for example, is based on the memory of a witness to the massacres.

But the idea was not to do a documentary play. My idea was doing a show about the violence in East Timor and how countries like Portugal and Australia dealt with it.

We have another scene in the show where artists wrote letters [on the issue] that we read out, artists like Paul Auster, Edward Bond, Jan Fabre.

The show was performed in Portugal four years ago. What was the response like?

The response from the audience in Portugal was massive. All theatre in Portugal is very political, because my generation was born learning writers like Brecht, Heiner Muller, and other political writers.

In the '80s and '90s in Portugal, the theatre was very very political and this has stayed in the soul of theatre audiences. Timor is a theme that is very special to Portugal. But we try not to do a sentimental show at all, here and there the show is deliberately politically incorrect.

Has the show screened in Timor? What was the response like?

Because the show is not a documentary and is more a play about violence, I don't think there are the security conditions to do a show like that in Timor. One time in Morocco, we went there to the Casablanca international festival with a violent show called Singapura and the show was banned after the first night. The police were inside the theatre to stop the audience entering to see the second night. We artists run danger too with shows like that.

Is music a big component of the show? Why the choice of thrash metal?

Many of the people I spoke to from Timor like heavy metal, and I was thinking fantastic, let's put in this show the music they like to listen to and not the music white people think is correct for Timor.

For example, I know a lot of Aboriginal people with metal bands and they like a lot this kind of music. But white people see them like museum pieces from years ago, without any evolution. It is disgusting how white culture wants to sell another culture.

The Timor Justice campaign has been working to prevent Australia stealing oil from East Timor. Does the play touch on Australia's role in the occupation?

Yes, in this play we do not forget Australia, too. I was researching what theme linked Australia and Portugal and East Timor. Yeah, we have a scene where the character Portugal accuses Australia of sucking the oil from East Timor. All [players] are a little bit guilty in this. Here and there in the show we put in some political humour and that scene with Australia is very funny.

[Tour dates: Canberra, May 8 & 9, Street Theatre; Melbourne, May 13-17, La Mama Courthouse; Albury, May 21-23, Hothouse Theatre.]

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