The Filmic Example of an Emergent Nation: Beatriz’s War and East Timor

Curator's Note

The creation of a local film industry is not often the primary concern of an emerging nation or government. This week aims to examine the contentious issues of conflicting histories, privileged narratives, and competing industrial concerns as groups fight for recognition.

What role can fictional film play in the impulse towards the creation of a nation? The country of Timor-Leste (East Timor) is one of the world’s newest countries, only officially recognized by the United Nations in 2002. Beatriz’s War (2013), the first film made in Timor-Leste entirely in the local language (Tetum) and intended for local audiences adapts the French Martin Guerre narrative, in which the focus is on a female fighter whose husband vanishes for sixteen years. In interviews, the Australian co-director Luigi Aquisto and Timorese co-producer Lurdes Pires stressed the importance of citizens of this war-torn country using the shared experience of watching the film to be both cathartic for those Timorese who lived through the trauma and torture of Indonesian occupation as well as instructive for younger Timorese who do not have firsthand experience of the occupation.

Though Beatriz’s War was made for Timorese audiences, most Timorese are infrequent cinemagoers. There is only one cinema complex in the country and is most frequented by foreign aid workers. Outside of the capital, Dili, consistent electricity is a rarity. In order to ensure that the film received a wide distribution within the country, the government sponsored a roving screening, in which the local filmmakers would travel with a generator, a blow-up screen, and a Blu-ray disc to villages. Following the screenings, the filmmakers ran workshops to discuss unresolved issues with the audience. Through this unique process of distribution, the filmmakers developed an understanding of how the film worked in service of collective memory. Pires commented, “I found out during and after the making of A Guerra da Beatriz that by telling their stories, it was healing; people felt that they could now get on with living, that they had told their story.” [1]


[1] Lurdes Pires, email message to author, November 23, 2014. Edited for grammar and style.


Eleanor: This is a compelling post and I am intrigued by the fact that "Beatriz's War" is considered the first film of Timor-Leste. Perhaps it is important to praise the circulation of the film through improvised spaces of exhibition. Similar to non-industrial nations launching their respective national cinemas in projecting films in public spaces (non-theatrical), Timor-Leste may perhaps invest in promoting a national cinematic culture. Although the financial resources are limited, as Timor-Leste remains one of the most impoverished nations in the world, it is safe to say that more vibrant films about the complicated history of the emergent nation will (re)create the nation's historical past and signal towards a unique national cinema.

Hi Eleanor, Fantastic post! I'm curious about the decision to base the film's story on the French Martin Guerre narrative. It seems like adapting a European story for Timor's first film might have more to do with trying to cater to an international audience than a local one. Do you know more about why this decision was made if the film was intended primarily for Timorese audiences? Do you know if there were any popular Timorese narratives that were considered for filmic adaptation? Also, to what extent was the Australian co-director involved in deciding on / shaping the script? Thanks so much!

This is a fascinating post. The exhibition strategies you describe sound very much like an attempt to build or strengthen a new nation and a national cinema through sharing a narrative of national trauma (even though the story is originally French, as you mentioned). It seems to me that the key is the local Tetum language. Does the government intend to support more Tetum-language films? It seems this would go a long way toward the creation of a Timor-Leste cinema and possibly also toward a stronger sense of an "imagined community," to borrow from Benedict Anderson.

Very interesting. This reminded me of Maoist use of film in the countryside, and I wonder if you're looking at (or considering) the state-sponsored propaganda potential (a la Martin Guerre by Eszter above). There seem to be multiple separate strands (and Benedict Anderson is great here) of identity at play, that should be considered separately: linguistic, cultural, folklore, political, religious. This is really interesting, especially in African states which presumably operate on some sort of imported European political model (more or less).

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