Answered By Fire: articles

David Wenham and other cast members

REALISTIC action ... David Wenham, centre, and other cast members from Answered by Fire.

Isabelle Blais

COOL change ... Isabelle Blais takes a break from the hothouse tale of the birth of a new nation in Answered by Fire.

Stars answer worthy call

THE church walls are stained with blood. Pews have been torched, crucifixes have crumbled.

On the church steps, a candle burns inside a stack of stones sprinkled with pink bougainvillea petals: an East Timorese memorial for the dead.

On the charred rear church wall, above a bloodstain the size of a human head, a Timorese phrase has been partially scorched: "Pai Nosso (Holy Father)".

Outside, the village of Nanura, East Timor has been ransacked.

Homes have turned to cinder, stores have been pillaged then burnt, cars have been firebombed.

Valuable aluminium roofs have been stripped from houses.

A United Nations flag has been torn from a flag pole.

Members of an East Timorese militia group ­ the Indonesian-backed men responsible for Nanura's total destruction ­ are huddled outside a ruined grocery store.

They lean on rifles laughing. They drink from whisky bottles.

One militia member ­ a shifty-eyed man wearing a bandanna and a sleeveless denim shirt ­ rubs his thumb along the thin edge of his machete.

Then, in a wrecked United Nations compound, surrounded by armed Australian Army officers, there is the peculiar figure of David Wenham ­ Diver Dan from SeaChange, Johnny Spiteri in Gettin' Square, Faramir in The Lord of the Rings ­ arched over touching his toes with his fingers.

He springs back up and stretches his arms. He takes three deep breaths and shakes himself loose like a boxer preparing for a title fight.

He's now ready for Scene 98A of Answered By Fire, listed in his call sheet as: "Mark watches as Jose makes a phone call."

East Timor-born extra Julia Magno giggles at Wenham's odd stretching ritual.

"Quiet on set," calls first assistant director, Ian Kenny.

Magno covers her mouth with her hand. Wenham throws her a cheeky grin.

Kenny looks across at director Jessica Hobbs.

Hobbs views the scene through the camera frame. The landscape is a destroyed East Timor, circa September 1999.

There's no telling the scene is being shot at Rudy Maas Marina, a canefield-covered marina at Jacobs Well, 20km off the Pacific Motorway. Hobbs nods her head.

"Action," Kenny says.

Answered By Fire is a three-hour miniseries set around the 1999 referendum in East Timor which saw 78 per cent of East Timorese voters choose independence from Indonesia, causing the Indonesian military and East Timorese militia groups to go on a bloody rampage, murdering an estimated 2000 people and forcing 250,000 Timorese civilians into camps in Indonesian-controlled West Timor.

In January this year, an independent UN-backed report, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation report, estimated 183,000 East Timorese were killed in the 24 years of Indonesian repression that followed the 1975 Indonesian invasion.

Wenham ­ who'll do a few more stretches today ­ plays an Australian policeman, Mark Waldman, who volunteers for the UN mission to East Timor to oversee the 1999 referendum.

Today is day 35 of a difficult, 36-day shoot.

The team has been filming a three-hour-plus film in less time than would be comfortable for a two-hour film.

Early in the shoot, torrential Queensland rain caused the loss of an entire day's shooting. And money is tight.

"We're making this on 50¢ and a bus ticket," says screenwriter-producer Barbara Samuels.

The set has been built on a cheap canefield the filmmakers bought at the start of filming.

The canefield was mowed down and transformed into a village with a dirt soccer field and a series of shacks acting as East Timor homes, stores and UN buildings.

But the project's subject matter has proven most emotionally draining.

In casting East Timorese leads and extras, director Hobbs met with more than 400 members of Australia's Timorese community. She found a community aching to share its story.

She met Alex Tilman, whose father was a member of the East Timorese resistance group, Fretilin, the long-time opponent of the Indonesian armed forces.

In 1978, Tilman's father disappeared, not to be seen again.

Tilman became a translator for the UN in Timor. Fittingly, he plays a UN translator in Answered By Fire.

Hobbs met Jose De Costa, who lost six siblings after the invasion of East Timor.

An independence supporter, De Costa was arrested by Indonesian police and repeatedly tortured before the Red Cross organised his release, upon which he sailed to Australia as a political refugee.

Not so fittingly, De Costa plays a militia leader in Answered By Fire.

"For East Timorese, to be militia is to be evil," De Costa says. "I had to try and reverse my feelings of pain, anger and revenge against them, to use them for the role."

Such feelings, says Wenham, walking to his next scene ­ a technically difficult one where his character boards a helicopter to fly out of East Timor ­ are starting to show on screen.

"I've had to stop acting," he says. "It shows next to these people. They're real. There's no performance there.

"Most of the cast here has never acted before. But their performances are extraordinary. They're mining personal histories to get what we're seeing.

"It hasn't been a pain-free experience for them. But it's certainly been a rewarding one."

When Samuels heard Wenham was on board to play the lead, she immediately sent a group email out to her friends. In the subject box she typed a message in capital letters: "WE'VE GOT WENHAM!"

On the 35th day of the shoot, Wenham's value is palpable.

It shows on screen as well as off, where he's always boosting morale with a joke or a well-placed compliment.

While the physical-effects crew and a team of set decorators transform the village soccer field into a helicopter landing pad, Wenham plays a game of soccer with a group of younger East Timorese extras.

"He's not like Tom Cruise," says Magno, watching Wenham from the sidelines of the soccer field. "He's not: 'Ooohh look, I'm sooo famous.' He talks to everybody. He has lunch and dinner with us every night."

Before the 1999 referendum, Magno was a medical student at Indonesia's Hasanuddin University.

When East Timor voted for independence, Magno's Indonesian lecturers refused to teach her.

Returning to East Timor, she became a volunteer medic tending to injured East Timorese under the instruction of Australian Air Force Warrant Officer and medical technician, Peter Hind.

In 2001, Hind repaid Magno by finding her a study position at the Queensland University of Technology, paying for her accommodation, books and transportation.

Magno hopes to one day bring her medical skills back to East Timor.

"There are still people dying in East Timor," she says. "In one place, people are killing people. In another place, people are dying of starvation."

Magno looks around this created East Timor, a landscape in ruin.

"This is just 10 per cent of the story," she says.

As the sun sets over Jacobs Well, the physical effects crew turns on a giant steel fan to simulate wind coming from the helicopter's blades. Wenham stands with a UN bag over his shoulder looking toward the fan as though it was a recently arrived helicopter.

He shields his eyes from the very real dust blowing against his face.

Where possible, says physical effects supervisor Brian Cox, filmmakers will simulate helicopter scenes for safety reasons.

A former tradesman in the Australian Army, Cox has blown things up for films such as The Matrix, Moulin Rouge and The Thin Red Line. But he has learnt to be wary of helicopters, recalling a story from one renowned war film, which he refuses to name, where an extra had his head chopped off by a spinning helicopter blade.

Then the real helicopter arrives. This scene will become the final scene in the miniseries, in which Wenham's police officer bids farewell to the world's newest nation, East Timor.

The supervisors tell Wenham to keep his arms down as he boards the helicopter.

It's been a long day ­ 12 hours ­ and accidents happen when the brain is tired. Wenham nods.

Kenny screams, "Action."

Wenham turns to his character's East Timorese translator, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Seeya mate," he says warmly. He boards the helicopter and cinematographer Mark Wareham tracks it as it flies up toward the sun. The scene lasts about 30 seconds. It took two hours to set up.

On the ground and out of frame, the East Timorese extras, who have stayed around to watch the spectacle, wave goodbye to the helicopter. "Cut," Kenny calls. "Time for dinner."

Dinner starts at 6.45pm. Gathered under an army-green tarp, the cast and crew line up for vegetable casserole.

With the shoot coming to an end, this is, for many people here, a last supper.

Wenham taps his plate on his thigh, waiting in line between a gaffer and a grip.

"This is a strange business," Wenham says. "In one career, you don't just do one job. You do many jobs and you're forever forming really, really close relationships. Then at the end of the job you have to say goodbye."

Over plastic cups of lime cordial, cast and crew members reminisce. They talk about the rain that turned the set into a mud pit. They talk about the herd of kangaroos that once bounced into shot, not good for a film set in East Timor.

The guys who played militia talk about the day they shot special-effects gunfire. And Magno, scooping up spoonfuls of vegetable casserole, is giggling again.

"I'd love to do more acting work," she says. "Maybe I should get an agent? I might get to meet Orlando Bloom."

Answered By Fire, ABC, Sunday May 21 and May 28

By Trent Dalton
May 17, 2006
The Courier Mail