Australian activist Kirsty Sword aspired to become a filmmaker. Instead, she began working as an undercover operative in Jakarta for the Timorese under the code name “Ruby Blade”. When she started correspondence with an imprisoned leader of the resistance, they fell in love through exchanging letters, pictures, bonsai plants and even cell phones and computers. “Alias Ruby Blade” captures the incredible love story of Kirsty Sword and Kay Rala “Xanana” Gusmao, as well as the revolution of East Timor. Here, I talk with the filmmakers of the documentary, Alex and Tanya Meillier .
1) For those not familiar, tell us about the plight of East Timor. What drew you to make this film and what compelled you to capture Kirsty Sword Gusmao’s story in particular?
TANYA: In 2005 we were stationed in East Timor working as a documentary film crew for the United Nations. We traveled the country interviewing many of the key members of the resistance as well as scores of ordinary Timorese. We were deeply moved by the courage of the people and felt that the story of the struggle was under reported in the West, in particular the USA. We wanted to find a way to tell the story of the Timorese revolution in a character driven way that would appeal to a wide audience. When we came across the story of Kirsty Sword Gusmao we knew that this would be an ideal window to the story. Who doesn’t love a good love story / spy thriller!
2) What struck me while I was watching the film was how relatable it was, despite most of us never having gone through the turmoil surrounding the Timorese. It felt like part political thriller and part beautiful love story, something I’ve never seen in a documentary. Was this a deliberate choice?
ALEX: We’re playing with genres in the film: spy story, love story, action movie. And we structured the film like a hero’s journey in three acts – but we’re also playing against that archetype – which raises interesting questions. For example, in the scene where Kirsty Sword becomes “Ruby Blade” we depict her elegantly swimming around in a pool in Jakarta, as opposed to standing under a streetlight with a briefcase full of secret documents. We wanted the film to be about how real people are capable of doing courageous things under extraordinary circumstances.
3) What drove each of you to be filmmakers? Where did you get your start?
ALEX: I’ve known I wanted to make films from a very young age. I began shooting and editing professionally at the age of 15 as a junior reporter for my hometown NBC television station in Minneapolis. Studying journalism at the University of Minnesota I made some experimental films and one landed me a scholarship at NYU. Since then I’ve directed several short films and worked as a producer and editor on feature films and television. Alias Ruby Blade is my first shot at directing a feature.
TANYA: I was lucky enough to have traveled greatly as a child with my mum and I was exposed to different cultures throughout my life. It was through this that I really found my passion of wanting to tell stories about the world.
4) Speaking of love story, as a husband and wife filmmaking team, how did you two meet and begin making films together?
TANYA: We met in New York in 2003. Alex was part of a Video Journalism training program and I had come to do a short course. It was a few years later we went to East Timor for the UN, which was the first time we made a film together. Since then we have worked on a number of films together – Alias Ruby Blade being our most recent project.
5) Is it a difficult balance between your personal and filmmaking lives, or do both work well together naturally? How do you balance your duties?
TANYA: On every project we do together we define what each role will be and we try to respect each other in those roles. We also try to carve out time when it’s our own personal time. This is very important to us and we have a rule that we make Sundays “Tanya and Alex” time. Of course that doesn’t always work out but we try.
ALEX: We’re collaborators. Like John and Yoko. I’m Yoko.
6) Another fascinating thing was that while Kirsty Sword was featured throughout the documentary, Xanana Gusmão was only shown through personal videos. Why was this?
ALEX: This is a wholly intentional and creative choice we made. We did interview Xanana and we filmed quite a bit more with him than appears in the documentary. However, in the editing we realized that if we cut to him in a suit and tie we would give away the end of the film. So we decided that even if you know that the Timorese will achieve their freedom and that he will become President and then Prime Minister, we were still going to take the audience along for the ride. That is why we reveal him in the story only as his personality is revealed to Kirsty. When he transforms from an enigma into a living breathing human being you can see what an incredibly warm and charismatic figure he is. Some audience members who don’t know the story have said they thought Xanana would be killed and the film would end in a great tragedy. To me, that means we’ve done an accurate job portraying the stakes involved.
7) What do you hope people will take away from this film? What message would you like to send to your audience?
ALEX: I would like the audience to perceive the film as being about the astonishing power of ordinary people to solve seemingly intractable conflicts. Because sometimes the good guys really do win. And then we would like them to walk out of the theater with a little less fear to speak out and act against injustice and hypocrisy in all forms.
TANYA: We wanted to highlight the way that the Timorese won their Independence through a strategy of non-violence. During the referendum there was terrible violence, killings and rapes, but Xanana believed that only through the strict adherence to a policy of non-violence would the Timorese be able to achieve their freedom. A very difficult decision, but absolutely critical to understanding the history of the ultimate triumph of the Timorese people. In the world today where we see so many people fighting for democracy this is a very poignant lesson.
8) For those who have seen the movie, what has been the feedback so far?
TANYA: The people who have seen the film so far have been very moved and sometimes astonished by the story. Many have a tacit understanding of the story of the liberation of East Timor but they have never seen it presented in a personal way like this. After our London screening a lady from Sri Lanka told us how inspired she was by the story and could really relate to the struggle of the Timorese, that really meant a lot to us.
9) What did Kirsty think of the final cut? Was she pleased with the end result?
ALEX: Kirsty loved the final cut. She watched it with her three boys who were completely enthralled by the film. The boys had only one comment: they felt that the scene where Banana is in prison and he says if he is ever released that he will clean the house is inaccurate, because in fact since he became President he has not kept his word. But we decided to keep it in because we felt he meant it at that time.
10) Do you still keep in touch with Kirsty Sword Gusmao and her family?
TANYA: Yes we do have close contact with Kirsty. Sadly she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of last year. Her prognosis is good but it means that she hasn’t been able to travel whilst she undergoes treatment in Melbourne. So she hasn’t seen the film in a theater yet but on May 9th we’re having our Australian Premiere in Melbourne and both she and Xanana will be attending. I think it will be really thrilling for her to see the film in a theater for the first time.
11) What is life like today in East Timor and what work still needs to be done?
ALEX: East Timor has progressed dramatically since we were first stationed there in 2005. There was a frightening period of instability in 2007, but the Timorese quickly recovered under the leadership of Xanana and since then things gotten progressively better. The United Nations ended their mission at the beginning of this year, which is really a huge accomplishment for the country. The challenge now is to eradicate the scourge of extreme poverty and to expand access to quality education so that the next generation of Timorese can fully participate in their new democracy.
12) Is there anything we can do to help those in East Timor?
TANYA : After independence, Kirsty founded the Alola foundation, which is committed to improving the lives of women and children in East Timor. One of the goals of the film was to indirectly raise awareness of Alola by shining a light on Kirsty, in hope that could have a real impact on the lives of women and children in Timor. You can find out more about Alola and their programs by going to http://www.alola.org.au
13) For those unable to go to the Tribeca Film Festival, where can they view Alias Ruby Blade? Will the film be distributed elsewhere, like in educational programs?
TANYA: Alias Ruby Blade is one of a handful of films that Tribeca will be showing on-line as part of the Tribeca on-line festival http://www.tribecafilm.com/online so people throughout the USA will be able to watch some of the films on-line and vote for their favorites during the festival. We are also planning a DVD release later this year which will be available on our website. An educational version featuring some of the interviews that didn’t make it into the film as well as a more in-depth look into the sophistication of the resistance struggle will be launched later this year.
14) What’s next after Alias Ruby Blade? Are you working on new projects?
TANYA: We are always thinking about our next film and have a number of projects in mind. We also work quite a bit on commercial and educational content, which is something we are keen to expand on. In particular educational content is something we get a lot of satisfaction from. We love working with NGO’s and non-profits and coming up with creative ways to bring important messages to the world.
15) What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker?
ALEX: Study your craft. You can be passionate about a cause, but remember you are making a movie.
Alias Ruby Blade will be showing at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. For more information on Alias Ruby Blade, visit: http://www.aliasrubyblade.com