Sword’s efforts to help the Timorese overthrow Indonesian rule in East Timor brought her into contact with pro-democracy rebel leader Kay Rala “Xanana” Gusmao. He was eventually imprisoned by the Indonesian government, and while she was serving as a courier, the two surprisingly fell in love.
Beyond its compelling blend of political documentary and romance, the deeply personal and inspirational story of Alias Ruby Blade makes it stand out among similar docs.
I spoke with the husband and wife moviemaking team of producer Tanya Ager Meillier and director Alex Meillier about how they brought this unique story to the screen.
MovieMaker: Did you two, as a husband and wife team of filmmakers feel a particular affinity for Kirsty Sword and Xanana?
Alex Meillier: [laughs] You mean because we are hopeless romantics? Maybe. The first project that we did together, just before we were married, we were stationed in Timor, working for the UN as a documentary unit. That was in 2005. That was part of our journey together. We spent a lot of time together in Southeast Asia, but our first experience in Timor really stuck with us. So in a way, part of the story of us becoming a partnership is the story of us going to East Timor. That is part of what appealed to us about her story.
Tanya Ager Meillier: I think the love story between Kirsty and Xanana was extremely moving to us. So did we relate to it? I don’t know. [laughs]
AM: I wasn’t in prison at the time, Josh.
TAM: But yeah.
MM: It has a universal sort of interest and appeal to it. Was her story always going to be the focus of Alias Ruby Blade?
TAM: Not really.
AM: I would say it started out with the idea of making a film about the Timorese resistance. Our initial thought was that Xanana would have to be a central character, because he’s the hero of the resistance. So when we were in Timor in 2005, we knew that Xanana had an Australian wife, but we really didn’t know the depth of her involvement in the movement. When we left Timor, and we started researching the ways in which we could make the doc, our idea was to go back to Timor and meet with all the members of the resistance, record their personal stories, and weave that together into a narrative. What happened was we started reading all these memoirs, and when we came across Kirsty’s book, not only is at an amazing story of this underground secret courier, but she kept describing how she wanted to be a documentary filmmaker.
So when we wrote to her, our first question was, do you have these tapes? We went to meet with her, told her we were making a film about the East Timor resistance. We were gonna interview her for it, but once we saw the tapes, that’s when the film became Alias Ruby Blade. That’s when it became her point-of-view. But what’s also important is we always looked at Kirsty’s story as the point-of-view, the way in which we would go into the story, and it makes sense in a way. It’s an interesting metaphor because being an Australian woman, she first went into Timor in 1990, that was shortly after the country was first opened up to tourists. So the country was completely closed off, even to Indonesians. Her entry is at the same moment where the western world started to wake up to what was going on in East Timor. That’s why her point-of-view is so interesting. And then she was on that film crew that made the groundbreaking documentary Blood. And we had the rushes. You can see them making the film, which is very exciting.
We never wanted to make a film about a Western woman coming to save the Timorese. That is not what Alias Ruby Blade is about. She is the way we enter into the story, but it’s really about people working together. It’s about people who aren’t afraid to throw their lot in together.
MM: Yeah, it’s a great story, and it does offer an outsider’s entry point into the situation that I think audiences will relate to.
TAM: We didn’t want to make a journalistic film, and we didn’t want to make a historical film. That’s been done. So we were very conscious of the fact that we wanted to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience. We thought her story would be a great framework for the larger story.
MM: Was Kirsty immediately interested in being involved? Did she need to be convinced?
TAM: We first started emailing her in 2007. We actually flew there to meet with her. I think that impressed her. That we flew from New York, a three day journey.
AM: In 2007, they were still recovering from a lot of instability.
TAM: Like the assassination attempt on Xanana.
AM: The airport was surrounded by an IDP camp. Things were not great. Now things are pretty good, but then it was pretty rocky. We had already spoken with several of her friends in the movement, so she knew who we were. And when we pitched it to Kirsty, we explained to her, we’re not trying to make a film about one woman who comes to save the world. We want this film to be about people working together. And one thing we have in common with her, is that we’re both great lovers of Indonesian society and culture. We wanted to make it clear that we weren’t making a film that’s anti-Indonesia. She understood that. One of our goals was to go to Jakarta and film with her with the Indonesian activists, and one of those pro-democracy activists became a major character in Alias Ruby Blade.
TAM: She also knows that her story is appealing, and she was looking for the right filmmakers to make this film. She’d been approached by other people, and she hadn’t done it. What appealed to her about us is we wanted to take it beyond the Australian-Timor circle, who know about her, and take it to the US and Europe, places where she was less known.
AM: When we told her we really want to get this film out and get it exposed, that was appealing to her. Making the film is not her biggest priority. She’s the head of her UNESCO chapter and the chair of her foundation, the Alola Foundation, and the ambassador of education to the country. Part of her duties is to go abroad and raise awareness, and to raise money for her foundation. So making the film and having it exposed to a bigger audience helps her to do that work. We are indirectly supporting her work.
MM: I thought that the opening title sequence was very effective in giving some context. Can you talk a little bit about how you put that together and using Paul Brill’s music?
AM: I dabble in graphic design, so I designed those titles. It evolved over time that we realized that we would have to create a sequence early on in Alias Ruby Blade to introduce people to what was happening, but we did not want to make a history lesson, so the idea is we’re just gonna give you the minimum amount of information that you need to know: This country was a Portuguese colony, it was invaded, it was cut off, terrible things happened, and then she goes in. So that’s what that sequence is supposed to be doing. Also it’s supposed to be peeling back layers, revealing the story behind the story, with the black representing redacted papers.
Paul is an incredible artist, and someone whose career as a film composer is just going to take him all the way. He’s a genius, and we were very lucky to collaborate with him. We brought him into our studio and showed him a rough cut with temp music and we told him, look, we don’t want you to replicate any of the scratch music, or create anything that’s cut to picture. We’re not gonna give you a copy of the film. We just want you to go away and compose some music inspired by the story, and we talked it through with him. We said here are five themes: “War” — that’s the opening theme. There’s “Love,” there’s “Exotic Journey,” “Protest,” and “Xanana.” There are these thematic pieces that get bigger throughout the film. He went away and composed, then we cut it into the movie, then we would send him what we had done, and then he would re-compose it, and over a period of time, it just became more and more refined. It was an amazing experience, and as far I’m concerned, that was one part of the film that we did exactly right. I’m so happy that we had Paul involved from the beginning. We really knew that we wanted Alias Ruby Blade to be powered by a really strong score. We wanted it to feel contemporary. We’re playing with genres in the movie. Like we have this spy theme intrigue music, but we play it when she’s just swimming in a pool. We’re trying to take the genre and twist it around a little bit. She’s a real person, who was only capable of doing these kind of things because she was thrust into these circumstances.
MM: So you’re kind of deconstructing the genre elements?
AM: Yeah. There’s also this action movie theme. We’re trying to put you in the moment.
TAM: The most important thing about the music is we didn’t want to put in, like, Indonesian gamelan music. We really wanted to make it contemporary.
AM: And you know, rock and roll is the music of revolution. That’s why we were particularly attracted to what Paul had done. We saw the film Burma Soldier, and the music is really intense. It really has that feeling, and I love that.
MM: I think the opening sequence set up the context well, but you don’t really go into U.S. involvement so much. Was that–
TAM: Yeah, there is some stuff on the cutting room floor about the US and about the history, but we always came back to the point that we had to keep the film moving. Hopefully people will be inspired to go find out more about it.
AM: The British and Australians were equally complicit. They turned their backs on the Timorese. You asked an interesting question, and because our film has a positive ending, let me try to put a positive spin on it. Bill Clinton, when he was running for president, brought up the issue of East Timor, and used that to hammer George Bush for the Bush/Reagan support for President Suharto by selling arms that were used against the Timorese. The Clinton administration worked behind the scenes to put pressure on the Indonesians to allow that referendum to take place. So when the May 2002 independence celebration happened, Clinton was the guest of honor. They also invited the Indonesian president, which was an incredible act of maturity and foresight. They want reconciliation.
MM: A lot of your previous experience has been as editors. I was wondering how that informed your work on Alias Ruby Blade.
TAM: The hardest thing I’ve ever done is having to cut my own film, without a doubt. Not one that I would recommend, if you can help it. Obviously every time you cut a film, you gain so much experience from it. And a lot of people advised us who we’ve worked with on previous movies.
AM: We knew this was going to be a really big challenge to edit. Just to get the structure and the pace of it right was very hard.
TAM: And just wading through all the action that could have been important to the film, such as more of the historical context of what happened.
MM: I appreciate that despite all the terrible things that happened in the past, it’s an upbeat story. It’s a positive, hopeful story and that makes it stand out.
TAM: Yeah, we wanted people to walk out of the theater feeling good. It’s not a depressing film. That was probably one of the main reasons why we end the film in 2002, the Independence Day celebration. It hasn’t been smooth sailing for East Timor since, but we wanted to end on an inspirational note.
AM: And we stand by it. Because this really happened. They did achieve their independence. There have been starts and stops since then, but right now, things are very good. The UN pulled out their mission in January of this year, and that is a giant accomplishment. The UN are saying we don’t need to be here any more to assist the East Timorese in their own governance. They are fighting crushing poverty and to educate the population. In those areas, they’re definitely on the right path.
MM: Can you talk about how it was funded?
TAM: We have a production company, and we do a lot of commercial work. So our production company funded a lot of it. We started making the film after we came off editing the Michael Moore film, Capitalism: A Love Story, so we had a little bit of Michael Moore money.
AM: We saved money from our salaries from editing that film.
TAM: From working for him for a year.
AM: Michael pays well, because he’s got the money. [laughs]
TAM: Then we got a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute. And before the film, Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney — I pitched it to Gini, even before we went to work for Michael, actually. I pitched it to her and she loved it. It’s sort of in their vein of what they like to fund. So they came on towards the end of the editing process, and they gave us some money to help with the editing. There was also an Australian producer. We pre-sold the Australian rights, and that basically put us over the edge so we were able to finish. And then we did a Kickstarter campaign.
AM: Just at the very end. Yeah.
MM: Kickstarter worked for you guys?
TAM: Yeah, we met our goal. It was really hard work, though, and not a lot of fun.
AM: We had a leg up, because we were in the IFP lab, and as part of the lab, they brought in a mentor from Kickstarter and did a seminar for all the lab films, and talked us through what makes a successful campaign. So we said from the beginning, we’re only gonna do one Kickstarter campaign, and we’re gonna do it at the end, when we know that we’ve got a screening confirmed, and our followers are gonna help us make the print. Because I think people overuse it. When we were in the lab, one of the important things the mentor said was “If all of your friends are filmmakers, forget it, because they’re already inundated. You have to think outside of that and reach out to people. Do the outreach, or you’re not gonna make it.”
TAM: We got a lot of people in Australia. Kirsty has thousands of fans and followers, so we were able to plug into her following.
AM: In Australia, Kickstarter is still kind of new, so people thought, oh this is really cool. You can give a little money and get a DVD of the film, and it’s about an Australian hero, so there was some traction on that side. I think you have to be careful about how you do it. It takes a lot of work. You have to do a hard calculation. If you don’t have the reach, you’re not gonna make it. Making a really strong video is important. You’ve got to research it, and look at other films that are like yours that have reached their goals. It’s hard.
MM: Could you talk about what it means to have the North American premiere at Tribeca?
AM: As downtown filmmakers, we just have so much respect and admiration for Tribeca. For us it’s like home. The Tribeca Film Institute gave us a grant, and now they’ve programmed us in the World Documentary Competition. It was the place that we’d really hoped we’d do our North American premiere from the beginning. So we’re thrilled.
photo of Kirsty Sword courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
photo of Kirsty Sword and Kay Rala “Xanana” Gusmao courtesy of the Daily Beast
photo of sunset courtesy of the Huffington Post
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