A legendary figure in Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence, the film-maker Max Stahl has died after his own long battle with illness. CHART’s chairperson, Prof. Michael Leach, reflects on Max’s contribution to, and place, in Timor-Leste’s history.
Timor-Leste is in mourning with the news that Max Stahl, filmmaker and journalist, lost his long battle with cancer in a Brisbane hospital on 28 October 2021 .
Stahl’s film footage of the infamous 12 November 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili, in which Indonesian soldiers killed as many as 250 young Timorese protesters, shocked the world. Coming after the well publicised visit of Pope John Paul II to East Timor in 1989, the footage put Timor-Leste’s struggle for self-determination back on the international map. This occurred just as the Cold War was ending, shifting international politics in favour of the Timorese.
Originally known as Christopher Wenner, Stahl had been a British television host and actor before becoming a filmmaker and war correspondent. His personal bravery in taking the footage during the 1991 massacre is evident, as TNI soldiers opened fire at close range on thousands of Timorese protestors.
Stahl concealed the tapes in a grave, retrieving them by night after his own arrest and interrogation. With the assistance of activist and journalist Saskia Kouwenberg, and others, the footage was smuggled out of the territory. It soon hit TV screens around the world, demonstrating the brutality of the Indonesian occupation, and the determination of a younger generation of East Timorese to resist integration.
Few individuals influence the course of history, but it is hard not to see the journalist Max Stahl as an exception. His footage of the Santa Cruz massacre galvanised and directly stimulated new international support for the independence struggle. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Timor-Leste’s liberation in 1999 without Max Stahl’s footage at the beginning of that decade.
Stahl’s commitment to Timor-Leste continued through the 1990s and after the restoration of independence, especially through his establishment of the Centro Audiovisual Max Stahl Timor-Leste (CAMSTL). The Centro maintains a video archive of the Timorese struggle for independence including the 1999 referendum, interviews with key independence figures and extensive footage of the first two decades of the new nation’s journey (see note below).
The Timorese government has paid tribute to his “substantial contribution to independence” and awarded him their highest honours, including honorary citizenship.
As former President Jose Ramos-Horta declared:
We honour him as one of the true heroes of our struggle…There are only a few key points in the history of Timor-Leste where the course of our nation turned toward freedom. This was one of those points.
It was the first time our message broke through to the world. Human rights networks went into action. Senators, Congressmen and Parliamentarians came to our side. And this happened when one man was willing to risk his life to document up close what was happening and smuggled the message out of our country.
Max Stahl’s passing will now throw open the question of the future of his passionately-built video archive. We can think of no better way for Timor-Leste to honour Max’s memory than for CAMSTL to become a fully-resourced, properly housed and professionally-run National Audiovisual Archive of Timor-Leste.
Michael Leach, 29 October 2021.
Samples of the work of Max Stahl and his team can be viewed online at CAMSTL’s backup/mirror installation at the University of Coimbra, Portugal.
Photograph source: East Timor Relief Association (ETRA) archives.