Punitive Damage (review)

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Portrait of an Angry Young Man

The uprisings in East Timor have been in the news a lot recently, but the tiny nation has been a tinderbox for years. Not that we hear much about that here in the United States. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the invader the Timorese have been trying to throw off — Indonesia — overran East Timor in 1975 with the permission of the U.S. government. Or that the invader used U.S.-supplied arms to massacre 200,000 Timorese — one-third of the population. Or maybe the U.S. media’s silence has more to do with the fact that the people of East Timor aren’t white and therefore of supposedly little interest to the vast majority of Americans.

What the U.S. media needs, really, for a juicy story, is for some middle-class, white, preferably good-looking revolutionary to get himself killed fighting the good fight in East Timor. Since those requirements weren’t quite met by Kamal Bamadhaj (he was only half white), it’s left to award-winning filmmaker Annie Goldson, a New Zealander, to tell his story. Kamal was a New Zealander himself, so perhaps his tale was never likely to be told in the American media. But, frankly, I don’t see how any news organization could pass up the drama inherent in a gorgeous young university student/activist getting murdered by thugs protected by uniforms.
I don’t mean to belittle Kamal’s death but rather the sheer apathy that has resulted in his story being untold until now. Punitive Damage tells his powerful, disturbing tale, which needs to be seen by anyone concerned about justice in a world seemingly increasingly hostile to the concept.

In 1991, New Zealander Helen Todd received word that her son, Kamal, had been shot during a peaceful protest for freedom in the East Timorese city of Dili. For days, she had no further news, until the Indonesian government informed her that Kamal was dead, and then refused to return his body to her. Not only is Todd convinced that “they tried to disappear him,” but she believes Kamal was deliberately targeted by Indonesian intelligence officers who knew he was on a “secret mission” in Timor for the resistance underground.

Through moving interviews with Kamal’s mother, sister, and girlfriend; through Kamal’s diary and letters home; though family photos — including the eerie, spectral last photo taken by his girlfriend — Goldson creates a portrait of a young man decidedly not an innocent victim caught in the crossfire but as an intensely passionate, idealist political activist who died for a cause in which he believed strongly. Todd talks of Kamal as a “loving” child, always sensitive to the “underdog” — the viewer is left with the sense that being biracial (Kamal’s father was Malaysian) and hence never quite fitting in may have lent to this awareness.

While hundreds of Timorese were killed when Indonesian soldiers opened fire on their protest, Todd takes the opportunity of her safe position — beyond the reach of reprisals from Indonesia — to avenge her son’s death, as well as the deaths of the voiceless Timorese. A self-described “fairly combative person” and obviously able to draw emotional strength from reserves many people would not be able to muster (it’s clear from where Kamal got his passion), Todd agrees to take part in a wrongful-death suit against the Indonesian general responsible for the Dili massacre. The general, as “punishment” for his actions, was sent to study at Harvard (!), and hence fell under the jurisdiction of an obscure American law allowing human-rights violators to be held accountable for their actions.

In the end, Helen Todd was awarded $14 million in punitive damages by a Boston court in a groundbreaking legal case. (The Indonesian government, needless to say, probably will never pay up.) Suing high-ranking military officers of a foreign government for human-rights violations? And winning? Right here, relatively speaking, in Boston? Who knew such things were possible? Have you read about this in Time or Newsweek? Have you seen this on CNN?

You probably won’t, at least while crimes against humanity are being committed by U.S. allies. But Punitive Damage tells the whole, damning story. It’s not likely to play in many theaters, or for very long, but it’s well worth seeking out. This is potent, provocative filmmaking that will haunt you.

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