Alias Ruby Blade

Alias Ruby Blade


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Alex Meillier's immediately immersive Alias Ruby Blade takes the story of East Timor from its invasion by Indonesia in 1975, through its turbulent and bloody fight for independence to the present day Timor-Leste. The story is refracted through the prism of an unlikely love story between the real woman behind that alias - Australian Kirsty Sword (now Sword Gusmão) - and Timorese revolutionary Kay Rala Gusmão, alias Xanana.

The result is a moving testimony to love of country and of kindred spirits that shows how the extraordinary partnership between the pair was key to freedom for a nation. It is also a celebration of peaceful resistance and of those who stand behind many of the world's figureheads, helping them to achieve their aims. Guiding us through the wealth of home video, news archive, still photographs and other film is Sword herself - recounting her life and, by extension, the tale of Xanana's fight for his country's independence.

Her story begins more than three years before she actually met Xanana, when she went to the country as an aspiring documentarian herself in 1990. She returned in 1991 as a translator, to help filmmaker Max Stahl shoot his own footage of the Indonesian oppression, posing, along with Stahl and his crew, as proponents of adventure tourism. While she was there, she had contact with some of the resistance fighters, who gave her photos of the Xanana, the "enigmatic warrior poet", whose motto was "to resist is to win".

This early footage shows how cameras can be a force for good, with Stahl able to capture the horrifying end to a demo in 1991 on film and help it be broadcast to the world. The film follows what came after, including Xanana's incarceration in Indonesia and the first shoots of the relationship that would blossom between him and Sword as she helped him to keep in touch with the resistance. The extensive home - or rather, prison - video of Xanana will come as a surprise to many who might imagine from his revolutionary garb and stern look on banners (think Che Guevara) that he was a tough ideologue. In fact, he comes across as something of a joker, winning over people through sheer force of upbeat natural charm - and, in Kirstie's case, a veritable forest of bonsai trees.

Meillier - and his wife Tanya, who also edits - have plenty of experience in coherently piecing together a big picture, having been repsonsible for editing several other documentaries, including Capitalism: A Love Story. Here they demonstrate a firm grip of the material, craftily seeding in just enough biographical information about Sword's upbringing without getting bogged down in it and balancing the personal romance story with the political fight. They also handle the film in such away that, although they give a real sense of the climate of fear and the atrocities commited by Indonesia, they keep the emphasis on the solidarity of the Timorese.

The Meilliers have also assembled an impressive array of interviewees, including fellow revolutionary and one-time Timor-Leste prime minister José Ramos-Horta and human rights activist Geoffrey Robinson, whose testimony about the carnage that followed the Timorese vote for independence is some of the most heart-rending of the film. Xanana, however, though present in much of the archive material is absent in person. Perhaps the decision was made in order to keep the focus more on Sword and her life and role but it feels something of an oversight not to have him say something about how he felt about their relationship in the early days, or her commitment to his country. This is a small niggle about what is otherwise a good documentary that manages to tell the story of a bloody period of Timor-Leste's history while making sure to celebrate humour, non-violent activism, love and hope.

Reviewed on: 17 Apr 2013
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The love story of human rights activist Kirsty Sword and political prisoner Xanana Gusmão.

Director: Alex Meillier

Writer: Alex Meillier, Tanya Meillier

Starring: Kirsty Sword Gusmao, Xanana Gusmão, José Ramos Horta, Geoffrey Robinson, Max Stahl

Year: 2012

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: US

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