Where The Sun Rises, A Journey of Forgiveness

Where The Sun Rises

The story of East Timor’s struggle for independence is inextricably intertwined with the legacy of its first President, Xanana Gusmão, a guerilla that led the 24-year liberation war against Indonesian occupation of East Timor, 7 of those years from a prison in Jakarta. His extraordinary life is one that could easily have been shrouded in feelings of bitterness and hatred, but as the film Where The Sun Rises shows, President Gusmão displays courage and grace under fire, believing in the power of peace and forgiveness to repair his ravaged nation.

Where The Sun Rises is an exploration of the nature and power of forgiveness, and its potential for freeing lives. It is the first film to be fully narrated by a Head of State, a remarkable triumph for director, Grace Phan. I had the opportunity to pick her brains on her working relationship with President Gusmão and the stories of the Timorese that left their indelible mark on her soul.

Grace Phan

At the first meeting with President Gusmão to discuss his possible involvement in the film, Phan admits that she didn’t realise how impossible it would be for any Head of State to commit personally to a film, much less personally narrate the documentary in its entirety.

“It was very clear to me throughout the project that President Xanana showed an extraordinary level of commitment, but I was now aware that it was the only film in which he accepted to be personally involved. He revealed this to me only on the very last day of our shoot. He accepted my proposal at our very first meeting in Dili to discuss the project. I could not have known, but I guess my idea resonated deeply with him. He told me later that he felt as if a random woman came into his office one day, and told him what he had been thinking about for many years.”

That idea was to tell the story of an extraordinary human spirit which allows people to carry on living after the ravages of war, poverty, famine and loss. Phan asked President Gusmão to share with her his own personal journey to forgiveness and reconciliation, and to share the people, places and events that were important and pivotal to him along his “journey of transformation”.

President Xanada Gusmao

The film traces the heart wrenching stories of the Timorese, such as Flavia de Jesus, an orphan girl who witnessed parents being murdered by militiamen when she was 7 years old and Sister Elsa, a nun who witnessed the massacre of hundreds on church grounds. The story that touched Phan most was Antonio Miguel, an old man tortured and mutilated by fellow Timorese as well as Indonesian soldiers, but who tells a story of forgiveness.

“Antonio Migual is a man from whom Gusmão learnt from. This poor, illiterate, maimed and tiny man who has been through such horrific experiences. Yet, he is so serene. I have to tell you that after we shot the sequence with Miguel, I had to ask myself if the old man is sane, because his response and world view after the near-unspeakable trauma he’s been through is quite simply ‘abnormal’! But I concluded that he is quite lucid and sane, because he always answered my questions very clearly, simply, and without any hesitation. He is just extraordinary.”

East Timor

The natural and rugged beauty of East Timor is also one of the biggest stars of the film and I asked Phan about the most striking and unexpected places she came across during the 18 months she took to make it.

“I was utterly enamoured with the little island. Jaco, which you see at the end of the film, is at the very eastern tip of East Timor, beyond which is the wide open ocean. Matebian mountain is an utterly surreal place. In the day, the sharp rock formations and the clouds that are constantly swirling can change the mood from ominous, to inspirational, to gloomy and foreboding every twenty minutes. What makes me dream is the colour of the sea, which I can’t help but stare endlessly at when we drive along the treacherous broken hillside roads long the coast.”

Born in Singapore to Indonesian parents, I was curious as to whether her heritage created any difficulties for her when making the film considering it’s political nature, to which she answered in the negative. On the contrary, her broken Indonesian came in very handy in Timor-Leste where almost everyone spoke Bahasa Indonesian, especially since her international team didn’t speak any languages that were understood by the Timorese.

President Xanada Gusmao

After spending months in close contact with President Gusmão and observing him with his people, Grace sees him as a great leader and a man whom she describes as a “living legacy”.

“It’s very clear to me that a good leader is one who leads by example, one who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. A great leader, however, is one who has a far vision — this is a gift. Some decisions may be unpopular, difficult to implement or difficult for the masses to understand, but this is the burden of a great leader, to explain, persuade and persist. Gusmão is a great leader, because he has foresight, the courage to make difficult decisions, and the fortitude to make personal sacrifices for his convictions. He is also not preoccupied with fame, popularity or money. He is determined that all the suffering and sacrifices that the people have endured to gain independence must be translated into prosperity, security and wellbeing for all the citizens, regardless of their part or present political affiliations.”

Where The Sun Rises opens at The Picturehouse on September 27, 2007.
[Buy tickets]

Join Grace Phan at Style: magazine’s Arts Sessions where she’ll be sharing preview clips and her filmmaking experience. Septemper 13, 6pm at the Screening Room. RSVP at style_promo@mediacorp.com.sg. View the flyer.

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