A man shares his spine-tingling experience of escaping a gruesome massacre while he recounts his route down the slope into the river and how he cut his rope with a stone. It is difficult to take your eyes off a half-ear stump that is left on his ear, or the little lump closer to the jaw which seems like it used to be the other half of his ear. In between that, a scar left by a machete.
Thankfully, this was the deepest scar which I saw visually in Passabe, a documentary by duo James Leong and Lynn Lee. The rest of the scars had to be imagined. And for about 2 hours, Passabe drew me deep into the lives of the people in the town of the title name, and I almost felt like I was there with the team, who has captured the ‘mostly honest’ footages.
Passabe explores the lives of people who were either victims or perpetrators of the Teum Lasi Massacre in East Timor. The massacre was a result of pro-Indonesian militia rounding up a group of men from the Passabe village and taking them to the outskirts of the town to be brutalised. A total of 74 men died, while others, like the man I described earlier, escaped.
Years later, the town has found the smell of peace, at least on the general surface, and the people are back to grappling with day to day household issues. The film paints us the setting, where music has found its way back into the lives, through the use of an electric keyboard at a village congregation. A mother works hard at weaving a typical native fabric proudly adorned by the men. Amidst a new found rhythm, the documentary attempts to peel back the layers to uncover the unsettled feelings.
It tells the story through appropriately balanced mix of voices Ã¢â‚¬” a victim, a perpetrator, and a wife of a perpetrator. The fact that the villagers so willingly organised a ‘coming-out’ session for the perpetrators tells me that this was a group of peace-loving people, intensifying the pain of recalling the gruesome chapter.
The interviews with the perpetrator gave the film a rounded and mature overtone, but despite that, there was a discernible lack of a villain here, despite all the anger and pain. The perpetrator openly shares the circumstances that led to his act.
“Like dogs fighting for a bone”, describes the man of the electrifying hour he experienced as one of the people assigned to kill. He had to kill or be killed. Contrasting this were the silently-affecting scenes of his wife and children, where we relish the homely comfort of watching a mother feed soaked beans to her daughter, who dips her fingers into the salt-flavoured gravy for a lingering taste. Amidst the repetitiveness of blood-filled memories coming from the talking heads of the men, the quiet act of feeding was almost a transcendental respite for me.
The documentary seems a little long because of the way it snakes around the village’s road to burying this hatchet officially. There were essentially two main events happening – the ‘perpetrator confessions session’ and the burying of the remnants of the massacre.
The documentary also makes detours into the lives of various parties involved, and while at times, the stories get repetitive with the different characters sharing somewhat similar experiences, but on the other hand, it makes you feel immersed in the environment, observing details like behaviour and mannerisms. There was a particular scene between one perpetrator, Alexio, and a supposed victim. They stood shoulder to shoulder, with the former’s arm over the other’s back, delivering a tender apology. On one hand, we don’t know how much of it was ‘performed’ for the camera, but on the other, you feel a sense of the low spatial barrier between people that happens only in a village. The film’s pace (thanks to its edit) also gives generous air time to feature all that the characters want to express. Like being there yourself, it is long-winded but genuine.
Passabe is now screening at Sinema Old School. While I have only watched this, plus Homeless FC, both by the duo James Leong and Lynn Lee, I am convinced they really pay the price of time for each production. So Passabe is not be missed.