Reviewed by Peter Calder ****
Director: Annie Goldson
The death of Kamal Bamadhaj at the hands of Indonesian troops in East Timor excited curiously little reaction in this country. More recent atrocities in which our nationals died - in Uganda, for example, or Chechnya - have provoked greater outrage and it's hard to shake the suspicion that Kamal's skin colour and exotic name had at least something to do with the relative obscurity in which he died.
Certainly our Government's response to his death - no, let's call it murder, since Goldson's documentary makes it clear that's what it was - looks woefully mild in retrospect. The film recalls Jim Bolger's honest though formal diplomatic rebuke of the Indonesian ambassador; but Don McKinnon, then as now Minister of Foreign Affairs, smiles simperingly in grainy news clips as he explains how there's no point getting seriously cross with a major trading partner.
Goldson then cuts tellingly to shots of top-level meetings with Indonesian leaders and reminds us of our shameful - and continuing - programme of military cooperation with one of Asia's greatest thugs.
But Kamal, the heartbreakingly handsome son of a Malaysian father and New Zealand mother, emerges from Punitive Damage as an ordinary New Zealander we can all recognise, an Auckland Grammar boy who ended up in Sydney where he mixed his university studies with a political idealism as practical as it was passionate.
What is extraordinary is his devotion to the cause of freedom for East Timor, which is why he found himself there in Dili on November 12, 1991, when Indonesian troops opened fire on a peaceful protest against 16 years of oppressive occupation.
Punitive Damage (its subtitle is A Mother's Trial) is essentially the story of Helen Todd, Kamal's mother, the star witness in a groundbreaking legal action brought by the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights against the Indonesian general Sintong Panjaitan under whose orders the massacre took place.
What's clear from the beginning is the potent symbolic value of what she's doing. She asked the court to regard her suit as standing for the silenced families of the rest of the 270 who died, and her triumph is undimmed by Panjaitan's contempt and the unenforceability of the $22 million verdict.
The documentary is sprinkled with the sickeningly familiar footage of the massacre, shot secretly by British cameraman Max Stahl. But it is so much more than actuality footage. Stagey but effective reconstructions of the trial lend an immediacy to the history and while much of the film is talking heads, we are left with a strong sense of a mother who admired her son almost as much as she loved him.
When she recalls with a wistful smile "this boy who could never get up in the morning" waking at 5.30 am to rouse all his friends for the fateful day of protest, or when the camera pans in close-up across his letters, we have a real sense of the human behind the headlines.
Restrained and unostentatious, this is a well-crafted memorial to a life well-lived and a testament to the quiet courage of both mother and son. It deserves a wide audience.
Reviewed by Peter Calder ****