My son visited East Timor two years ago and it was a highlight on his 13 country tour of South Asia. But from his descriptions I didn’t think that this country, in the grip of rebuilding, would be a place where theatre would flourish yet. So I read this story from Melbourme’s The Age newspaper with a mixture of interests. I was heartened to see that it was the work of a collaborative team from East Timor and Australia. The result sounds sensational and it reminds me again about the power of art, collaboration and the human drive to tell stories.
Dead men do tell tales – and myths
- August 28, 2012
ON A steamy afternoon in Dili, I am heading to a rehearsal of an East Timorese-Australian co-production when my phone rings. The caller has instructions about the route to take to the venue on the capital’s outskirts.
”Ask the taxi to come by Banana Road. There’s rock-throwing and gunfire the other way,” he says.
Creating theatre in one of the world’s youngest, poorest and at times troubled nations presents many challenges. And the unrest that followed East Timor’s recent elections has added another layer of difficulty to what is billed as the first international professional theatre piece created there.
Its director Thomas M. Wright is talking
with Timorese actor Osme Gonsalvesas
I arrive – without incident – during a break in rehearsals. The pair first met making the 2009 movie Balibo in which Wright played one of the murdered Australian journalists and Gonsalves, Timor’s best known performer, appeared as a driver. They became friends during the filming and since then Wright, co-founder of Melbourne’s innovative and uncompromising Black Lung Theatre – has been back and forth between Australia and East Timor and dreaming of creating a co-production.
The result is Doku Rai (You, dead man, I don’t believe you), a work that intertwines myth, music and meta-theatre. It brings together Australian artists – including Thomas Henning and Gareth Davis – with Timorese performers who include Gonsalves – a former street kid and guerilla-turned court jester – a herpetologist, a tattooist and Timor’s leading rock star.
Wright recognises a shared sensibility between Black Lung, whose members live and create together, and way the Timorese artists work.
”When I met these guys we were all four years younger and all of us were really angry,” says Wright. ”These are people really frustrated about the situation in their country and want to do something about it.”
But Doku Rai is not political polemic. ”It is about creating a shared myth between these groups of people,” says Wright. ”We wanted to make something that is built on people’s personal stories. It plays out as more of a metaphor than a history lesson.”
Among the stories it draws on is one based on a man musician Meli Fernandes knew as a child. Today Fernandes is the lead singer with Galaxy, Timor’s best-known rock band. But growing up in the country’s east, he was terrified by a local village bully, a man who hated children.
”[This man] spent his life in the market, being the boss, calling everyone to give him [free] food, give him cigarette, betel nut,” says Fernandes. ”He hated kids. If they play with slingshot, he come after them. He kicks them like a ball.”
But as he sat in the market one day, the man who hated children was hit by a stray bullet. Even in death he instilled fear.
”For 30 minutes people were still afraid. People just standing around him. No talking, just silent. They wanted to make sure is he dead or is he just pretend?” says Fernandes.
A mythic tale from Gonsalves about a man who cannot die is also interwoven in the the work which was created over two months during which the artists lived and worked together in an abandoned hotel on remote Atauro Island, a couple of hours by boat from Dili.
Wright acknowledges the process was intense and at times confronting.
”You take two groups of people from totally different backgrounds and then scrutinise the process and question your own motives,” he says. ”And you are living together for 24 hours a day in 30-plus degrees climate.”
As well as his work in East Timor, Wright has recently filmed Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake mini-series in New Zealand. He also starred in Malthouse-Sydney Theatre Company’s controversial Baal.
Wright wanted to tell personal stories in Doku Rai, but political events impacted as July’s post-election violence, although short-lived, led to the creative team being separated. Half were on Atauro Island and the other grounded in Dili until it was considered safe to travel. It meant that four performances scheduled for Dili were cancelled, although a performance on the island went ahead and became a major community event drawing several hundred islanders.
”The making of this work really has been like the creation of a family,” says Wright.
Music has become an increasingly important element as the work has developed, as has film footage, created by Amiel Courtin-Wilson, whose film Hail just won The Age Critics’ Award for best Australian feature film at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.
With funding of nearly $250,000, including from several major festivals, Doku Rai is likely to have a life beyond its Melbourne outing. Wright hopes it might travel internationally, not least because so little is known about our neighbour, little more than an hour’s flight from Darwin.
”This show is ultimately about saying – whatever you think you know about these people and this place you don’t know a f—ing thing,” says Wright.