Trail of Murder: A Story From the Past Opens Old Wounds

    Film director David Niblock had a long fascination with South-East Asia so when the opportunity came up he took on a story about the murder of the FT journalist Sander Thoenes in East Timor in 1999 with great interest.

    What he didn’t realise how a story from the past can have such a deep impact on the present.

    Told through the eyes of another journalist Step Vaessen, a friend and colleague of Sander, it’s taken him to the last days of the Indonesian rule in East Timor and the horrors of the army’s retreat.

    Step was also able to interview the then president of Indonesia, Bacharuddin Habibie, who ordered the Indonesian army to leave East Timor and the generals who were in charge of the retreat. It was not an easy experience.

    David Niblock spoke to the CIJ ahead of the screening of Trial of Murder: Indonesia’s Bloody retreat on 9 February as part of the London Investigative Film Festival.

    CIJ: How did you become involved in making the film?

    David Niblock: I made a film for the previous season of Al Jazeera Correspondent that everyone was very happy with and as a result I was invited back again by the series editor, Farid Barsoum. Farid told me the stories that he was commissioning for the 2013 series and this one just stood out for me.

    One of my mentors in the early days of my career was David Munro, who produced and directed so many films with John Pilger, including Death of a Nation - The Timor Conspiracy. That film affected me enormously at the time and stoked my interest in the affairs of that part of the world. I had wanted to go there ever since and this really did feel like the perfect opportunity.

    CIJ: Was it difficult directing such a personal documentary?

    DN: Desperately. I underestimated the emotional impact that the process would have on all of us, especially Step [Vaessen, the journalist who tells the story of the murder of Sander Thoesen], and I wasn’t quite ready for that. I have been in a lot of tricky places covering very difficult stories and I thought that going to a country now at peace, to explore a story from the past, would be much easier. I was very wrong.

    I think that making a film like this affords one a little more space to reflect and then the memories, the emotions, the scars that we all carry become a little more acute and things that we might ordinarily take in our stride are just that little bit more painful. There was no “autopilot” switch when I was making this film, everything had to be carefully considered and, at times, some tough decisions had to be taken. I am not sure that I always got it right.

    CIJ: Murders of journalists always make big news and often remain unresolved, how did it feel retracing Sander's footsteps?

    DN: It was a very sad experience. But I also had a sense of responsibility to tell the truth and to maintain perspective.

    It is naturally a terrible outrage that Sander was murdered, but I was also aware that many, many East Timorese had also been killed, tortured and abused by the Indonesians during a long occupation. It was desperately important to tell their story at the same time as not diminishing the extreme impact that Sander’s death had on Step and others.

    Every story we heard was painful, but I was struck by the resilience and fortitude of the East Timorese.

    They are finally building a future that for so many years had been merely a dream, a dream that they had always believed would come true. It was always important for me to reflect that optimism in the film and to acknowledge that their positivity had affected us as we made the film.

    They inspired me to conclude the film the way that I did.

    CIJ: Step and you found and spoke to the very people involved in the Indonesian army's retreat from East Timor who were indirectly (and possibly directly) responsible for Sander's murder. How did their response make you feel?

    DN: In a nutshell, angry. But as the edit progressed and I studied their words more carefully I realised that even the perpetrators suffer from human frailty.

    At the time of recording their interviews the generals spoke in Bahasa and I only had a very rough notion of what was being said. General Wiranto showed little emotion and no remorse and I found that incredibly arrogant and selfish.

    I won’t go into all of the details but it was an extremely hard interview to conduct and Step handled it with great panache. She always knew when to bring her personal story to the table and as a result she finessed from Wiranto his true feelings, or lack of, towards the atrocities. Getting this on camera was a real coup.

    General Noer Muis was a much more complex character and part of me really liked him.

    I have spent a lot of time in the presence of military forces and I am familiar with the mechanism of command. I knew that Noer Muis had responsibility for the men who murdered Sander and the others, but I also felt immediately that this was not something that he ever wanted and, if he had been there in person, I think that he would have prevented those atrocities.

    But that is not the place of the General in combat, unfortunately, and the Indonesians were behaving as though they were at war.

    It would have been easy to have included other parts of Noer Muis’ interview to portray him as a more heartless commander, but I don’t believe that is who he was or is. I met a man who is remorseful for what happened and I believed that it was fair to reflect that.

    I wasn’t able to be at the interview with President Habibie as he wasn’t available until mid-way through our edit. When the transcripts arrived with me I was immediately struck by how little power this president had, but I admired how he managed to achieve so much for East Timor by exercising the little power that he could.

    Of course it was apparent that he expected a different outcome to the referendum but he had the honour to respect the outcome of the vote.

    CIJ: You yourself are no stranger to the dangerous environments, what in your opinion, makes people risk their lives for the story?

    DN: To be absolutely honest I have never wilfully risked my life for a story and I never intend to. I know that others do, but I really don’t believe that anyone should.

    There are obviously risks involved in what people like me do and I know that when I go into a dangerous environment that I have to be very careful. I am well trained and I keep that training up to date. But it is about managing the risk and staying as safe as possible... it is not about risking life, it is about living it to the full.

    Sander was only a few years younger than me so I felt that I understood very clearly what would have been going through his mind in East Timor, what drove him to take a big risk the day that he was murdered, and that made me think about my own experiences. It also focused my mind on how my own family and friends would have been affected if something so terrible had happened to me (and it nearly has, more than once) and I felt very small and humble and I now question whether I am really equipped to go and do such things again.

    I am not sure that I will.

    CIJ: What was the most moving aspect for you, while making the documentary?

    DN: There were many things that moved me to tears when we were making this film. It hurt terribly to see Step suffering so much at times and I knew that the process was opening up many wounds for her. I regretted that but I also knew that it was important to see how people’s wounds never heal after an experience like this. We always expect our correspondents to remain stoical and objective, we don’t often recognise or sympathise with their plight... but life isn’t like that. I wanted the world to see Step Vaessen the person, not the professional.

    Jon Swain is a great old chum of mine, and I was aware of his celebrated experiences at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but I was shamefully unaware until I was researching the film that he had also been a big part of this story.

    When I heard a man that I love and respect so much giving such heart-rending testimony it really choked me up. When he allowed his emotions to break through, and we are talking seasoned conflict correspondent Jon Swain, I knew just how deep the cut had been and it really hurt me too.

    I was deeply humbled by President Taur Matan Ruak and his nobility, serenity and strength. He shared with us his vision for reconciliation and he is achieving a sense of harmony and optimism in his country.

    He also said something to me in private that I won’t repeat here, but it is clear that he puts the future of East Timor before his own personal feelings. He is a giant.

    The most moving thing of all, however, was Jacinta Da Costa’s testimony just before the end of Part I.

    Step was interviewing her about the murder of her nephew, a story that we already knew and were keen to have in the film. Once again Step was conducting the interview in Bahasa and I could see from Jacinta’s body language that the story she was telling was extremely personal and sad.

    When she finished Step turned to me, on the verge of tears, and said that she could not believe what she had just heard... that standing there, in front of the other villagers who had gathered to watch us work, Jacinta had told her that she had been repeatedly raped by the Indonesian military and had borne three children as a result.

    I was shocked then and even after having watched her interview more than one hundred times during the edit process, I still cannot watch that part of the film without welling up.

    The fact that she said it straight after her description of living through conflict with words that Yeats or Owen would be proud of, makes it one of the most remarkable and moving testimonies that I have ever witnessed in my career.

    David Niblock, Step Vaessen and Jon Swain will be taking part in a Q&A session after the screening of Trial of Murder: Indonesia’s Bloody Retreat on Sunday 9 February at 5pm, as part of the London Investigative Film Festival.

    You can read an interview with Step Vaessen here.