Passabe - Entrails and All

A man shares his spine-tingling experience of escaping a gruesome massacre. While he recounts his route down the slope into the river and how he cut his rope with a stone, it is difficult to take your eyes off a half-ear stump that is left on his ear. There is a little lump closer to the jaw which seems like it used to be the other half of his ear. In between that, a scar left by a machete chop. Thankfully, this was the deepest scar I saw visually in Passabe, an old documentary by duo James Leong and Lynn Lee. The rest had to be imagined. For about 2 hours, Passabe drew me deep into the lives people in the town of the title name and I almost felt I was there with the team that captured the ‘mostly honest’ footages. Passabe explores the lives of people who were either victims or perpetrators of the Teum Lasi Massacre in East Timor. Basically, pro-Indonesian militia rounded up a group of men from the Passabe village and took them to the outskirts of town to be brutalized. A total of 74 men died though some escaped like the man in the opening paragraph. Years later, the town has found back the smell of peace, at least on a general surface level. People are back to grappling with day to day household issues. Music finds its way back into the lives with even the use of an electric keyboard at a village congregation. A mother works hard at weaving a typical native fabric seen proudly adorned by the men like sarongs. Amidst a new found rhythm, the documentary attempts to peel back the layers to uncover some unsettled feelings.

It has appropriately chosen a balanced mix of voices – a victim, a perpetrator, a wife of a perpetrator. Evidently, the fact that the villagers so willingly organize a ‘coming-out’ session for the perpetrators tells me these are a group of peace-loving people, which actually intensifies the pain of remembering that gruesome chapter. Interviewing the perpetrator gives the film a rounded and mature overtone. There was a discernible lack of a villain here, despite all the anger and pain. The perpetrator openly shares the circumstances that led to his act. ‘Like dogs fighting for a bone’, that was his description of the electrifying hour he experienced as one of the people assigned to kill. He had to kill be killed. Then there were the silently-affecting scenes of the wife and children. Over about 5 minutes, we relished into the homely comfort of watching a mother feed soaked beans to her daughter who constantly dips her fingers into the salt-flavoured gravy in the bowl for a lingering taste. Amidst the repetitiveness of blood-filled memories from the talking heads sections by the men, the quiet act of feeding was almost a transcendental respite for me.

The documentary seems a little long because of the way it snakes around the village's road to burying this hatchet officially. There were essentially two main events happening - the 'perpetrator confessions session' and the burying of remnants from the massacre. But the documentary makes detours into the lives of various parties involved. Sometimes, the stories get repetitive and different characters share somewhat similar experiences. But on the other hand, it makes you feel immersed in the environment, observing details like behaviour and mannerisms. There was a particular scene between one perpetrator, Alexio, and a supposed victim. They stood shoulder to shoulder, with the former's arm over the other's back, delivering a tender apology. On one hand, we don't know how much of it was 'performed' for the camera. On the other, you feel a sense of the low spatial barrier between people that can only happen in a village. And the editing gives generous air time to feature all that the characters want to express. Like being there yourself, it is long-winded but genuine.

Passabe is still screening at Sinema Old School. I have only watched this and Homeless FC by the duo James Leong and Lynn Lee. But I am convinced they really pay the price of time for each production. So this is not be missed.
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