All the economic cuddling up to Indonesia by New Zealand (and Australia) was proved
fruitless when it came to the economic crunch, says Annie Goldson, and the willingness of
Western nations to to use trade as an excuse to not address human rights issues has been,
at best, "an opportunity we've missed."
"I'm not motivated by political positions"
That's a very moderate way of saying the West, Australia and New Zealand particularly
in their neighbourly role, have been cowardly in their dealings with Indonesia over East
Timor. But Goldson is not that strident, although she is, in her quietly spoken way,
passionate and concerned about the issue of human rights.
In her detailed and gripping documentary, Punitive Damage, Goldson tells the tragic
story of the 20 year old New Zealand-Malaysian student, Kamal Bamadhaj, who went to East
Timor to assist a human rights investigation. His passion for the cause of independence of
East Timor led to him being shot dead by the Indonesian military at the Santa Cruz
Cemetery in Dili - one of the 271 unarmed East Timorese who died there. His (by then
divorced from her Malaysian husband) mother, Helen Todd, had an opportunity to seek
justice in the US courts for her son's death. She eventually found a way to fight the
Indonesian Government and those responsible, in a landmark international court case,
awarding punitive damages of US$16 million in her favour. (Not that she expects the
perpetrators to pay. . . )
"I always have to say that I'm not motivated by political positions," says
Goldson, who also made Seeing Red (the story of the New Zealand 'red scare' scandal of
1949); Framing the Panthers (the story of former Black Panther leader Dhoruba Bin Wahad);
and Counterterror: North of Ireland (on the British shoot-to-kill policy in Belfast).
"There's always a multiplicity of motivations.."
"There's always a multiplicity of motivations, but I do have a deep interest in
human rights," she says. "In this instance trade was used to intimidate New
Zealand into doing nothing. . . "
Punitive Damage, says Goldson, "is a very human story, even though the context is
political. In terms of filmmaking it was a way of exploring a regional political issue
through a personal story, one with New Zealanders at the centre. Because of this I hoped I
would combat the belief that such grievous violations occur elsewhere - and are nothing to
do with us."
Goldson, a teacher, filmmaker and mother, says she was "encouraged to take a
personal line in the film because of Helen . . . the fact that she could do this, and
because she's spent a lot of time in Asian cultures and is not at all patronising. She
knows what they are."
When the film was shown at Parliament House in New Zealand, 70 MPs attended, a high
turnout; "they probably needed to do their homework, as we have police and people
over there (in Timor)," says Goldson. But the film has generated a great deal of
positive responses from all over the country and "many people were horrified by not
only the events, but the complicity of the West."
"a special trust"
Goldson says Helen Todd has now formed a special trust which will be the beneficiary of
some of the revenue from the film's distribution ("if it makes any money") to be
distributed to student pro democracy movements in various parts of Asia - in memory of
The New York law firm, Centre for Constitutional Rights, established by the late civil
rights lawyer William Kinstler, played a key role in getting the case to trial in New York
(because an enlightened US law allows for human rights offences to be tried irrespective
of geography). And, says Goldson, "if there is enough political change in Indonesia,
these lawyers are not the kind to drop the matter and may well pursue the Indonesian
General and the Military Intelligence officer directly responsible, in a court over there.
The case of Kamal Bamadhaj is not closed.