Robert Wesley on the death of Max Stahl

Max and East Timor

Shirley Shackleton extracted support from some of us to travel to the UK in mid 1991 to lobby for East Timor, a very prescient action.

She persuaded Yorkshire TV to go to East Timor (as it was called) and they recruited a cameraman in Max Stahl. She also encouraged or motivated Irish bus driver Tom Hyland to prepare to deny Paul Keating a trouble free visit to Ireland to try to show Irish ancestry - which he did extraordinarily successfully, and Tom now lives in Dili.

Yorkshire TV went in mid 1999, did their job and left. Max came to Darwin as was not well, and stayed with Maria do Ceu Lopes de Silva (Federer) and her family until recovered.

News came that the Dutch foreign minister/or UN rep was to visit, with the prospect of the Portuguese delegation visiting in November.

Max was available nearby to go to cover this visit. Several Darwin people were also to go, and I dragged Max to meet Russel Anderson and Saskia Kouenburg as useful colleagues.

The delegation was with Jill Joliffe as an informed member (she had been living in Portugal for some years), the Indons barred the delegation with her as a member, so the Portuguese cancelled the whole visit. However the Dutch senior man was still attending, which the students thought might give them some protection.

Students had been preparing to protest or advocate at the visit, so decided to go ahead with rallies etc anyway. A student involved was shot dead inside the Motel church. A big and pioneering rally walked in his honour to the Santa Cruz cemetery. Max was filming this rally, (I spotted from Max' film Indonesian military/supporters streaming into one of their buildings to join anti-rally actions.) Russel had his tape recorder running as he walked with the crowd.

At the cemetery initially there was a celebration, for example with some students standing on the structure above the gateway. Then the mood changed as a large number of Indonesian troops marched up the road and lined up outside the cemetery, and started murderous live rounds shooting into the students.

US activists Amy Goodman and colleague Alan Nairn were outside the gate and hoped by declaring they were US citizens this might deter the shooting. It didn't. Instead Amy was attacked to the ground and while Alan tried to protect her with his body his head was bashed with a rifle butt, causing lasting injury.

But Max Stahl somehow had got himself inside the cemetery and filmed towards the gate, where a pile of dead bodies was being climbed over by students attempting to escape. At one point you can see a soldier gesturing to Max to come out, but with no response he walked off. A dramatic scene was filmed of a boy lying and groaning with lots of blood on his torso, being comforted by a brave fellow student. These injuries were from knife wounds. A statue has been created of this scene and located in central Dili.

Max buried his film under a gravestone before his own arrest, and after being interviewed for 9 hours and no film found he was released, and went back to the cemetery and retrieved the film.
One reel of it was carried out by Saskia with help from that Dutch man to rush through the airport unsearched. She had prepared for being searched by making her nose bleed and spreading it onto her underpants above where she had hidden her segment of the film. She told media of this and attracted a lot of attention. She and Russel promoted the cause in Europe for months after. (Of course there were other heroes, many East Timorese, and Kamal from NZ, but this is about Max).

Meanwhile Max got out to Thailand I think and worked hard to edit his film. It was eventually released to graphically show the Indonesian brutal rule. A study was made with evidence to show about 250 students were gunned down that day. But Max didn't leave it at that, and obtained evidence that those students wounded and arrested, and other just arrested, were subsequently murdered largely at the Dili hospital just up the hill from Dili town, some by trucks being driven over people forced to lie on the road, others showing life inside the hospital were bashed dead with a stone. Another 200+ bodies, and so on. All this info was via Max.

Max didn't forget East Timor, but did do some activities in other places for a bit. But he was determined to get back to cover the election ballot for independence in Augsust 1999. He went to the Australian Embassy in London to get a passport in the name of Max Stahl (derived from his Mum's name mainly), but with bad luck at the counter was a lady who had watched him as Christopher Wenner on British tv. Max was caught out and stumbled, and was denied a passport. Even I rang the senior officer and tried to explain he can't go back into Indonesia under his original name and expect to survive, but no compassion was shown.

So Max worked his way through Indonesian islands, often paying fishing boats skippers to take him to the next island, until he got to Atauro. From there he was taken by boat to the beach, and walked through the town devastated and being burned by vengeful Indonesian military and militia.

He arrived at the UN compound and was greeted with: who the hell are you, we are leaving, get on the truck - or some such! Max said no way, I'm staying, and soon after crawled under the fence at the back and walked up to Mana Lu/ Sister Lurdes residence at Dare, filming as he went. I remember particularly the little boy or girl who looked to where he was standing, I reckon he spotted the little glowing red light on the camera, anyway he fell into a hole, and knowing he had to keep quiet climbed out the other side without a sound, another little hero. Many Timorese got there too, kept Manu Lu particularly busy, and water supplies were provided from the pipe and tank system built under care of Lansell Taudevin.

Max found a motorbike and rode around filming people both alive and dead. eg he somehow got to the bottom of the cliff 'Little Jakarta' so-called, on the way to Ainaro, where people were thrown over alive to their deaths. His film of that was sent to his media contact company, not AAP but similar, and never saw light of day. He never gave up, told Pilger where to get good shots for his film and filmed himself, but Pilger asked him to not publish until he had!! Wow! Max's film came out first, but Pilger's had a big impact.

Max created the Max Stahl Film and Sound Archive, which has become a treasure house of both Max' films and those of others. Students volunteer to document and translate various languages etc, it is very impressive to see. A central office with extra air-conditioning houses the main film products, with expert Timorese managing.
It was a constant battle to get funding for this, and to allow Max to do more filming himself and teach budding film makers.

There is much more that could be said about this hero to Timorese, whose work played a big part in their eventual independence. Of course many will know he marred paediatric Doctor Ingrid, and they have 2 now young teenage children. Max had 2 from a mariage in UK, and Barnaby has been with him in his dying days. Those with him expected death overnight on several days, but the fighter in Max has kept on keeping on. Despite caring treatment by top Aussie doctors of the cancer on his neck, the large tumour keeps on growing. Sad. Special thoughts for Max and his family Ingrid, Leo and Malin, Barnaby, and Ben who Covid is holding away at the present, and very close friends in this tough time including Ros Dunlop and family who cared for them in Sydney, and now also Rosa Horta in Brisbane, Ceu, and me!

Wes. 27 Oct 2021. (writ in motel in Manjimup in SW WA), email