Life doesn’t often mirror fairytales, but it did for Kirsty Sword Gusmão, whose trajectory from a grassroots activist to the first lady of a fledgling nation is a modern-day twist on the peasant-to-princess archetype.
Alias Ruby Blade, which opened at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 19, tells Kirsty’s amazing story. Born in Australia in 1966, she moved to Indonesia in the early 90’s to work on human rights and humanitarian aid. There, she got swept up in the escalating independence movement in East Timor, which had been violently occupied by Indonesia since 1975. Kirsty became enchanted with the rebellion’s “enigmatic poet warrior,” Xanana (pronounced Sha-na-na) Gusmão, and began to exchange letters with him. By the time the two met, four years later, they were in love.
The Gusmão's larger-than-life story is at once forbidden affair, revolutionary triumph, and suspenseful political espionage. The film opens with a flash of archival newsreels: starving children, unconscionable violence, heavily armed militias. In 1990, East Timor was in the midst of a dire human-rights crisis when 23-year-old Kristy arrived as an activist. She was keen on exploring the turbulent territory, which had just recently allowed a trickle of tourists. “I derived some sense of enjoyment from the fact this was going to be very risky; that appealed to me,” she admits in a narration. Soon after, she returned with an undercover documentary crew who caught on tape a brutal attack on civilians that made nightly news across the globe.
“It’s really made for people to have an entry point into the story,” says director Alex Meillier of the film’s historical synopsis. (His wife, Tanya, produced the movie.) The Meilliers first worked in East Timor in 2005 as filmmakers for the United Nations. They began mulling a longer project on the region, and came across Kirsty’s autobiography, which immediate rang “alarm bells.”
Flying out to Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, the Meilliers met Kirsty and she handed them boxes of old tapes. She had planned to someday make a film herself of what she calls “the David and Goliath struggle” in East Timor, and had intimately documented everything—from her first trips to the videos of everyday life she and Xanana would send each other while he was in prison. “It was all about enhancing the sense of—while separate—a shared life together, in the most strange and awful circumstances,” Kirsty says in the movie of their correspondence.
“When we saw the footage we were blown away,” Alex remembers. As they began making contacts for the film, the Meilliers found there was a feeling of incredulity that no one had told the story before. They had wanted to capture the narrative of East Timor’s rise to independence, and now they had the perfect subject through which to tell it.
Through interviews with the era’s high-ranking activists and political figures, the documentary pieces together the trappings of an unlikely political love story. Xanana, a charismatic leader, had been directing the revolution from a hideout in the forest for 16 years before he was captured by government troops. Kirsty, working from the Indonesian capital and adopting the alias Ruby Blade (“everyone in resistance has a code name,” she says), begins couriering messages to and from Xanana’s prison cell in Jakarta. Soon, she became a conduit of resistance activity: her house became a meeting point, and Xanana’s orders come through her lips. “The way she is—very refined, elegant—who can believe she can be mischievous?” a fellow activist jokes in the film. (Inevitably, her phone was tapped and her home graced with visits by Indonesia’s national intelligence.)
For those viewers unfamiliar with East Timorese history (and that’s most of us), we don’t initially know whether Xanana survives his jail time and the subsequent bloody rebellion. The creators say the suspense was intended. In two scenes, Kirsty is seen surveying the country from a helicopter. At that point, Mellier says, “you don’t know if she’s flying over a place where a terrible tragedy has occurred or whether she’s flying over a place where there was a great triumph. But in reality, it was both.”
Finally, the United Nations stepped into the conflict. Then-Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered agreements that ultimately resulted in the Timorese voting for sovereignty on May 20, 2002. Even though a vicious uprising followed, Xanana and Kirsty were allowed to return to East Timor for the first time in years. “We are human being and like everyone else in the world we have the right to be free and now we are free,” Xanana bellowed to a crowd upon his arrival. Soon—spoiler alert—Xanana was elected to be new president of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, and Kirsty became its first lady.
Today, Xanana—clad in a suit and neatly trimmed goatee—serves as prime minister and Kirsty strives to be a normal Timorese mom. Despite her status (she’s also chair of the UNESCO National Education Commission in Timor-Leste and founder of the Alola Foundation, which supports health and education access for women and children), she spends each morning loading her three boys into her truck and driving them to school. (She is currently in Australia undergoing treatment for cancer.)
“My hope is that viewers will be infected with the passion that inspired me to dedicate a large chunk of my life to the East Timorese struggle, and want to find out more for themselves,” Kirsty wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “I believe this film refocuses attention on this little half-island nation in a very intimate and special way.”
“The past was the past, but the story of Timor is a story of people working together and a story of reconciliation,” Meillier says. He and his wife hope to turn the film into an education outreach program that tours Timor-Leste once Kirsty finishes her treatment and returns home. Tanya Meillier says she hopes the more salacious aspects of the tale—the forbidden love and espionage parts—will encourage interested viewers to learn about the issues still affecting Timor-Leste.
“Her point of view is she just did what she felt was right in the circumstances, “ Alex Meillier adds. “Our question became: Would anybody do what she did under the circumstances? And we hope people think about that when they leave the theater.”