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Alias Ruby Blade: Tribeca Review

Alias Ruby Blade Tribeca Still - H 2013
"Alias Ruby Blade"

The Bottom Line

Doc brings East Timor story to life, even if it omits more than it should.

Venue:

Tribeca Film Festival, Documentary Competition

Director:

Alex Meillier

The quest for independence in East Timor is recounted by a foreigner who wound up playing a central role in it.

NEW YORK — Presenting a surprising and privileged viewpoint on the climax of East Timor's long struggle for independence, Alex Meillier's Alias Ruby Blade introduces us to an aspiring filmmaker from Australia who wound up acting as the right hand of an imprisoned rebel leader. Told largely in her words (and omitting parts of the story that don't serve the memoirist's purpose), it's an engaging tale with enough intrigue to please those curious about this recent episode in Southeast Asian history.

Kirsten Sword grew up interested in Australia's neighbor to the north, a territory that was abandoned by Portuguese colonialists only to be violently annexed by Indonesia. The hows and whys are left vague here, but in 1990, after East Timor was opened to tourism, she decided to visit with a video camera, pretending to be on holiday while covertly documenting oppressive conditions there. (While tourist dollars were welcome, meddlesome journalists definitely were not.)

During a later visit, Sword worked with like-minded reporters who captured video of a 1991 massacre of peaceful protesters, footage that helped bring global awareness to persecution in East Timor. Moving to the Indonesian capital Jakarta, she befriended a large group of students from East Timor who, imprisoned for protesting the occupation, needed all the assistance she could give. When the resistance movement's hero, "enigmatic warrior poet" Xanana Gusmao, was captured and sent to the same jail, Sword (by now using the alias referred to in the title) wound up serving as secret courier between him and the outside world.

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Though they didn't meet in person for years, the pair developed a romantic bond as Sword grew more essential to Gusmao's independence campaign. By bribing guards with the money she funneled to him, the leader was able to get cameras, a cell phone, and even a small computer into his jail cell -- allowing the two to exchange intimate recordings of their daily lives, footage used to good effect here. (Sword's narration ignores the fact that Gusmao was married, albeit separated, during this time.)

Though some previous knowledge of the ways the Timorese people suffered under Indonesian rule will help auds embrace its protagonists' campaign, the doc's dramatic structure (goosed in occasionally questionable ways with reenacted footage and Paul Brill's overheated score) will play well with viewers who wander in knowing little about the controversy's outcome.

Though Meillier and his subject get the essential points across about that resolution, they smooth over great chunks of the intervening years, making the story sound much simpler than it has been. They'd surely say that's appropriate in a film focused solely on this woman's experience of events; here's hoping newbies don't walk out thinking they now have the full picture of the last three decades in Timor-Leste.

Production Company: Ager Meillier

Director: Alex Meillier

Screenwriters: Tanya Ager Meillier, Alex Meillier

Producers: Tanya Ager Meillier, Richard Keddie

Executive producers: Abigail E. Disney, Gini Reticker, Silvio Salom

Director of photography: Shane Sigler

Music: Paul Brill

Editors: Tanya Ager Meillier, Alex Meillier

Sales: Tim Sparke, MercuryMedia International

No rating, 77 minutes