Night of the Living Dead | The Nation


Night of the Living Dead

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On the topic of people who have been tossed away, I recommend Annie Goldson's documentary Punitive Damage, since its subjects have refused to go quietly.

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Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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A more apt comparison would be between the surviving staff of the satirical magazine and the brave abortion providers who carried on after the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

The person on whom the film focuses is Kamal Bamadhaj, who died violently in East Timor at the age of 20. With a mother who came from New Zealand and a father from Malaysia, Kamal grew up as a child of the Asian Pacific. Upon entering college in Australia, he plunged into studies about regional affairs and developed ties to Indonesia's pro-democracy student movement. A trip to Indonesia, and to its occupied territory of East Timor, confirmed him in his activism. East Timor staggered him: the magnitude of the slaughter that had been inflicted, the pervasiveness of the military, the atmosphere of terror that hung over daily life. When he returned, for the second and final time, he came as an agent of the East Timorese resistance.

Leaders in exile had approached Kamal, asking him to contact their people in Dili. He was to bring them the itinerary of a joint delegation from the United Nations and the Portuguese Parliament, which was scheduled to visit East Timor in October 1991. In the event, the delegation canceled its trip, and the populace, which had begun to come out of hiding, suddenly found itself exposed before the Indonesian military, without the expected shield of the international community. Kamal stayed on. On November 12, he attended a memorial service and rally as one of a handful of foreign observers (among them Nation contributor Allan Nairn). Soldiers opened fire on the crowd. Some were killed on the spot; some were carted away, presumably to be tortured, and have not been seen since. Kamal, though wounded, managed to walk away from the massacre; but within half an hour, soldiers found him on the street and put a bullet through his head.

That was the end of the story for Kamal but the beginning for his mother, Helen Todd, whose strong presence dominates Punitive Damage. In interviews at her home, she eloquently recalls Kamal's life and shares old photos; in more startling sequences, she re-enacts the testimony she gave in court in a 1992 lawsuit against one General Panjaitan, the officer who oversaw the massacre.

The lawsuit, brought in US District Court in Boston by Todd and the Center for Constitutional Rights, resulted in a $14 million judgment against Panjaitan. He is, of course, secure in Indonesia and is unlikely to pay a penny. But he can no longer freely visit the nation that underwrote Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. (At the time the suit was filed, he was living in the Boston area on an academic fellowship from his government.) And wherever Punitive Damage is shown or written about, people will know what Panjaitan and his government did to Kamal Bamadhaj, and to some 200,000 East Timorese.

Punitive Damage is being shown in New York City for a limited run at Cinema Village. The film is distributed by First Run/Icarus Films: (212) 727-1711 or www.frif.com.

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