In 1991 a young New Zealander, Kamal Bamadhaj, was gunned down by Indonesian military during the Dilli massacre in East Timor in which 270 people lost their lives. His death set his mother, Helen Todd, on a personal and political campaign which spanned five countries and four years, and which culminated in a landmark legal case against the Indonesian government. Punitive Damage is about a mother’s quest for truth and justice.
Helen’s account of how her son died, and her battle to bring the Indonesian government to justice, take centre stage in the documentary. Her story is a difficult one to tell, yet she comes across just as poised and determined in her cause as her son was in his. She speaks, not only as a mother who has lost her son, but also on behalf of all those Timorese who, through fear of reprisals, cannot speak. Through Helen their stories are also represented. Through the interviews with Kamal’s family members, friends, and through extracts from his diary, a portrait is built up of a young man who was committed to the democratic cause. He was no young idealist, but an activist who ultimately gave his life for something he believed in. A lesson to us all.
Using stills and an audiotape recording, the film is structured around a reconstruction of the court case. The film contains some remarkable moments, such as the testimonies of the Timorese witnesses (now in exile) who risked their safety to speak, and the foreign journalists who recount how they risked their lives to get the story of the Dili massacre out to the world. Perhaps most shocking is the actual footage of the massacre, secretly shot by British cameraman Max Stahl. This footage, coupled with Helen’s account of how her son died, is a powerful and poignant reminder that democracy and freedom, things we take for granted, have to be fought for and won.
Just days before he was shot, Kamal wrote in his diary: “Whether total genocide occurs in East Timor or not depends not only on the powerful will of the East Timorese people but on the will of humanity, of us all.”
This is a personal story, but one which has wider-reaching politicizing implications. At a time when East Timor is once again front page news, Punitive Damage shows what can be achieved through courage and determination. Helen Todd, would not let the Indonesian government forget that they had taken away her son’s life. This is the story of ordinary people who do extraordinary things for what they believe in.