The Story

This is the story of an undercover documentary I produced over 20 years ago. It won a best documentary award from the RTS  but more significantly it changed the course of a nation - and led to extraordinary changes in the lives of the crew that made it.

In 1991 a former Blue Peter presenter turned cameraman risked his life to film the cold blooded massacre of 270 civilians in a churchyard in a far off island. Just before he was arrested he buried the crucial footage by a grave.

After it was smuggled off the island the pictures of the slaughter led news bulletins around the world. The world awoke to Indonesia's brutal occupation of East Timor. It was the trigger that led directly to East Timor winning independence.

The researcher for the film was a 22 year old called Kirsty Sword. She gave up TV to devote herself to the East Timorese cause. Making clandestine prison visits to the Timorese guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao, she fell in love. They married. And in 2002 she became the President Gusmao’s First Lady.

The Blue Peter presenter, Max Stahl, also gave up everything for East Timor. He left his life and family in London to live on the island.

There were more dramatic transformations: the student who helped smuggle out the documentary footage became the Minister of Health... the exiled activist won the Nobel Peace prize.

This new film documents these amazing developments.

The story begins with Woman's Hour. An Australian woman is telling the story of her husband Greg Shackleton who was killed with his crew by the Indonesian Army as they invaded East Timor in 1975. He was the last reporter ever to film on the island. Listening to her story, I resolved that I would lead the next crew.

It took a year to establish contacts, work out a plan and find the right team.

As an Australian young woman in her early twenties, Kirsty Sword was the perfect foil for myself and my cameraman when we went undercover. Fluent in Indonesian and Portuguese, she would distract the occupiers as we went about our secret filming and keep us one step ahead of the game by eavesdropping on their conversations.

Max Stahl was the brave cameraman who risked his life. Nothing had prepared him for more than 200 people being shot directly in front of him. He tells us why he kept the camera rolling even when he was targeted by the Indonesian soldiers, how he survived his arrest and smuggled the rushes out of the country. He talks too about how he made his way to a guerrilla hideout and filmed their daily life under the noses of the Indonesian occupiers.

With our filming over, Kirsty moved to Djakarta where she risked her life working undercover for the Timorese Clandestine Front.

After a year, Xanana Gusmao - the charismatic Timorese guerrilla leader was captured, then imprisoned in Djakarta. Kirsty’s life was set to change for ever. Soon she was secretly working as his liaison with his guerrillas in the bush and as the months wore on, they fell in love.

Soon after a cloak and dagger meeting with him behind the prison walls she was forced to flee Djakarta as the net closed in on her. Their relationship continued as East Timor’s history began to change. By 1999 there was a referendum which voted overwhelmingly in favour of Independence - which led to a torrent of destruction and death as the Indonesians. By now Kirsty was by Xanana’s side - offering solace to him as he impotently watched his countrymen being butchered and his country being burned.

Max was there too again - risking his life again to record the mayhem.

By 2003 Xanana had become the country’s first President with Kirsty as the First Lady. 3 children followed as Kirsty herself became a national figure - but life being married to the ‘father of the nation’ has not been easy. In 2008 she and her children were victims of a direct attack from rebel soldiers as they sought to assassinate her husband.

Through Kirsty we finally get to meet Xanana - 18 years after our original film and he tells us how desperately he tried and failed to meet us in 1991, how he planned the demonstration that led to the fateful massacre in Santa Cruz and the significance of its broadcast, how he survived as a guerrilla fighter in the mountains for 17 years, and how he fell in love with Kirsty.

Max’s life also changed for ever. He now lives in East Timor (with a new wife and two young children) where he no longer seeks the heat of battle, but makes films exploring the life of the new nation as well as training its young people in film-making.

Together with Kirsty, Max and Xanana this new film will meet the remarkable characters who either appeared in the original film or were instrumental in its making.

Taking advantage of the unique access that I have to all the characters and using the original film as its prism, this new film will be driven by the strong personal narratives of its main characters through which we will also be able to access thematic layers to do with the nature of resistance and personal sacrifice, the price paid for living lives driven by a higher mission (rather than personal happiness), nation building and justice and reconciliation.


Max Stahl and Peter Gordon filming in 1991

Guerrillas by hideout where they were secretly filmed in 1991

Kirsty Sword Gusmao Max Stahl and Peter Gordon in the garden of her home in Dili