Answered By Fire: articles

David Wenham and Isabelle Blais in action

Hot spot ... David Wenham and Isabelle Blais in action.

Fire power

A new ABC miniseries about East Timor could mark a resurgence in local drama from the public broadcaster.

East Timor may be thousands of kilometres away, but in the humid Gold Coast hinterland, just 45 minutes' drive from Dreamworld, I'm suddenly surrounded by thickets of rainforest, thatched-roof houses and people chattering in Portuguese. I'm on the set of Answered By Fire, an $8 million Australian-Canadian co-production starring David Wenham, about the events of 1999, when the East Timorese braved intimidation to vote for independence from Indonesia in a UN-sponsored ballot.

Everyone is happy: an important scene has been shot this morning and the cast and crew, including dozens of grinning East Timorese extras, are chowing down on lunch.

East Timor and Australia are bound by blood, as Wenham's character explains: "The East Timorese saved our arses in World War II against the Japanese and then in 1975 we just stood by and let the Indonesians walk in and take this place. We owe these people, big-time."

The cash-strapped ABC has delivered with this beautiful two-part miniseries, an increasingly rare foray away from panel chatfests and British cop dramas. Artfully

shot and with gut-wrenching performances, Answered By Fire inspires hope of a public-broadcaster-led renaissance in Australian drama.

The story revolves around Mark (Wenham), an Australian policeman who has volunteered for the UN mission. Together with a Canadian officer, Julie (played by Canadian actor Isabelle Blais), and a young local translator, Ismenio (Alex Tilman), he supervises the registration of the East Timorese and ensures conditions are safe for the vote.

Mark is challenged and enchanted by the headstrong Julie. She sulks at his decisions and takes matters into her own hands, at one point attending a Fretilin pro-independence meeting and compromising the UN mission's neutrality.

Once the referendum result is announced, the UN team is forced to evacuate East Timor as local militia, backed by the Indonesian military, begin to butcher thousands of pro-independence supporters. In one scene, screaming villagers, one clutching a baby, scramble over barbed wire to enter the UN compound and escape militia gunfire.

Guilt-stricken and unable to resume a normal life in Australia, Mark returns to East Timor months later to seek justice and reconnect with the survivors. Julie, on the other side of the world, does the same.

The story of Mark was inspired by David Savage, an Australian UN official who kept a diary of his five years in East Timor. Save for a real-life televised appearance by the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer (whom Wenham, as Mark, calls a "dickhead" in an apparently unscripted ad-lib), the characters in Answered By Fire are fictional.

"Mark's a good man, a veteran of several missions. It gives him a rush to help people and feel part of the bigger picture," says Barbara Samuels, the Canadian co-writer. "He has a fair idea [the mission] is not going to be a walk in the park but his sense of self is almost destroyed. He usually polices and protects people, but he couldn't do what he came to do."

East Timorese amateurs were recruited for several parts, following an Idol-like casting blitz around Australia by director Jessica Hobbs. Particularly impressive is Tilman, in his first acting role, who plays the intense Ismenio.

A pro-independence "do-gooder" who has just returned from university in Jakarta, he clashes with his cousin Sico (Jose De Costa), a militia member who nurses a toxic family grudge.

Authenticity was always the priority for Samuels, who conceived Answered By Fire after meeting a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officer just back from East Timor. She admits she "came to the issue late". Unlike Australia, where East Timor's history is seared into our psyche, in Canada it remains a boutique cause.

Sniffing a script, Samuels teamed with Australian writer Katherine Thomson and visited East Timor in 2003. The pair interviewed everyone from political heavyweights to "widows in the hills", she says. "We'd knock on someone's door, they'd pull up chairs and we'd talk. People would say, 'Documentary?' and we'd say, 'No, movie,' and they were astonished.

"People were amazingly forthcoming in talking about stuff that was absolutely raw. The idea of the world watching their story was very important; they kept saying, 'Please tell our story.' Katherine and I were thinking, Jesus, if we don't get this right, we're going to have a lot, morally, to answer for."

Through interviews, the pair also gained a more nuanced understanding of the former militia. Some had pro-Indonesian sympathies, but most were mercenaries, coerced or simply garden-variety ratbags, Samuels says. "You feel like shit, you don't have a lot of self-esteem. Put a gun in a man's hand, show him he can cause fear in other people [and] for a certain type, this can be quite satisfying. That's what we tried to show with Sico."

Wenham hopes Answered by Fire will shatter Australians' complacency about our northern neighbour. According to this year's UN Development Report, half the population there lacks clean drinking water, 6 per cent of infants die before their first birthday and the life expectancy is 55 years. What's more, the miniseries airs against a backdrop of renewed tensions, highlighted by last week's riots and looting in the capital, Dili.

Wenham hopes Answered by Fire will reinvigorate another dire cause: Australian content on the ABC. Here, at least, there are reasons for optimism. Last week's budget gave the national broadcaster an $88 million cash injection over three years, including $30 million to set up a commissioning arm and invest in more independently produced drama.

Admittedly, the ABC is coming off a low base. This financial year, it will broadcast 16 hours of new Australian drama, up from three hours last year, but still a far cry from the glory days of the early 1990s and hits such as GP and Police Rescue.

Wenham, who came to prominence as Diver Dan on the ABC's iconic SeaChange, urges the industry to back itself and be given "permission to fail".

"Everything one attempts can't always be a winner," he says. "We've got to accept some Australian dramas do fail.

"My greatest wish is that people see Answered By Fire because it's a wonderful story, told fabulously well. Will it be leveraged to assist local drama on the ABC? One would hope so. Hopefully we've bottomed out and can turn it around."

By Alan Mascarenhas
May 15, 2006
Sydney Morning Herald