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A Hero’s Journey

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In a nutshell

A very sympathetic and intimate film about independent East Timor’s president Xanana Gusmao and the troubled, violent history of the former Indonesian province, as seen through his eyes as well as those of the Timorese people.

A Hero's Journey posterThere’s a very good chance that you will be wowed by this documentary, and a slightly smaller chance that you might be cheesed off by the overwrought emotion it features. But what really matters is that this is a side of East Timor you will rarely see, and this film deserves all the props it can get for taking on the story of one of Southeast Asia’s most bloodstained roads to independence.

East Timor’s president Xanana Gusmao is your tour guide as the film travels all over the country, pointing out caves he once hid in as a guerrilla, homes he sought refuge in during the fighting, and even the rundown, bullet-pocked building he now calls his presidential office.The filmmakers also follow him to Cipinang Prison in Indonesia, where he was imprisoned for seven years.

Gusmao walks the audience through his personal history, as well as his experiences as a pro-independence guerrilla fighter. But what is more interesting is his attitude towards the future and the Timorese people he has sworn to govern and care for.

The film portrays a man who somehow manages to find the strength in himself to forgive the past and to move on with the future. As he moves from village to village, listening to what the Timorese have to say, Gusmao comes across more like a village elder whose fatherly ways have endeared him to the public. He embraces his betrayer and his jailer, comforts widows and childless mothers, and indulges children in a manner that can only be described as saintly in a very Christian sense of the word. Talk about turning the other cheek.

A Hero’s Journey is probably the first documentary to be wholly narrated and endorsed by a head of state, and President Gusmao is a surprisingly adept speaker, eloquent and passionate. The interviews give a great deal of insight into the man himself, bar the occasional politically correct response.

West Ashton and Brad Dillon’s cinematography for this film is excellent. The camera’s frame lovingly caresses the gentle shores and cerulean waters of the country’s beaches, while lingering solemnly on the misty, jagged peaks of East Timor’s mountainous terrain. This is East Timor as the mainstream media has never seen it, and that’s worth the ticket price alone.

At the same time, the weakest (if it can be called weak) point of the film also lies in its choice of visuals. There are really only so many times you can see joyful crowds welcome a president before you start to doubt the authenticity of what you see. A cynical audience may be turned off by the tear-jerking scenes of widows sobbing at an inauguration of a memorial to commemorate the fallen men of a village, or of Gusmao breaking down in tears while hugging a woman who sold her possessions to save his life but who also lost her son in the violence.

Nevertheless, A Hero’s Journey is overall a thoroughly enjoyable documentary marked by stunning visuals and strong interviews. It has been nominated for Best Documentary at the Asian Festival of 1st Films 2006 — and deservedly so.

Written and directed by Grace Phan
Running time: 80 minutes
Released in 2006
Screened at the 2006
Asian Festival of 1st Films

Catch the second screening of A Hero’s Journey during the Asian Festival of 1st Films at The Arts House on Sunday, December 3 at 2.30 pm. Tickets available from The Arts House.

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2 Comments

  1. 7 December 2006 at 1:41 pm

    […] The films nominated from Singapore were certainly a host of fresh faces: Grace Phan (nominated for Best Documentary for A Hero’s Journey), and from the Becoming Royston team, Nicholas Chee and Terence Teo (nominated for Best Screenplay), Ken Minehan (nominated for Best Cinematographer) and Alvin Neo (nominated for Best Actor). […]

  2. 4 December 2006 at 8:14 pm

    thanks for this review!
    seems a fair enough assessment and certainly makes me want to see the doc.
    hope to be reading more by you on this site.

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