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Preserving East Timor's ancestral stories
An Australian theatre director has embarked on a history-making trip to East Timor to help preserve the country's ancestral stories, as Kate Arnott reports.

The eastern tip of East Timor has a strong and unique cultural identity, but ancient stories about the land and creation, are at risk of dying out.

To help preserve this heritage, an Australian theatre director took a history making trip to the region.

Kate Arnott reports.
(Sound of people singing)

KATE ARNOTT, REPOTER: The Lautem district of East Timor is a place of great beauty but like many areas of the country it suffers from high unemployment and poor access to education, health services and clean water.

What the district and its capital, Lospalos, do have, though, is a rich cultural history.

(Images of Lospalos are shown)

KIM DUNPHY, MANY HANDS INTERNATIONAL: One of the things about Lospalos is because of its isolated nature at the very eastern end of Timor-Leste, culture is very strong, stories are strong and traditional music is strong.

KATE ARNOTT: While older generations have kept the cultural practices life but the social and economic pressures on the younger generations mean it's all in danger of being lost.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE PERFORMER (subtitled): It's really important for us to know about our culture. It has connection with my history but I haven't known it deeply.

(Images of Lospalos are shown)

KATE ARNOTT: Ancestral stories about creation and the land are especially important to the district's elders.

To help preserve those story, an Australian theatre director, Catherine Simmonds, travelled to Lospalos with her son, Luca, and the support of Asia Link and agency Many Hands International.

What followed is a fascinating story.

CATHERINE SIMMONDS, THEATRE DIRECTOR AND AID WORKER: There was like a palpable electricity of history being made really I think.

KATE ARNOTT: With 12-year-old Luca behind the camera and translator Sellas Suarez Bello by her side, Catherine Simmonds invited the district's cultural leaders, known as lia nain, to sit down together and their share sacred stories.

(Footage of Lia-nai and Catherine Simmonds plays)

CATHERINE SIMMONDS: Meeting with the lia nain in the house with possum wine and lots of cigarettes and sitting in a crowded circle and drinking black coffee and they brought out butchers paper and one man had the pen and they're writing things down, there was an air of seriousness and trepidation.

It's the first time that they had ever been in a room and started to speak their story to otherwatu (phonetic). They were fascinated in each other's stories.

KATE ARNOTT: To ensure the stories live on, the lia nain were asked to consider allowing them to become public, using theatre and the young people of Lospalos.

CATHERINE SIMMONDS: When you take a sacred story, and an ancestor story with sacred symbols and secret meanings that are only handed down to certain people and told on certain occasions and then you put the notion of that become public, it's a very difficult space to navigate.

KIM DUNPHY: Sensitivity is very, very important. These stories, for these people they're very powerful and actually in a way that we can't understand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE PERFORMER (subtitled): At the end we can sacrifice something because of telling the story. In Timor-Leste, if we tell something that is really sacred like say their name, ancestor name, we should kill something for telling their name. So it's kind of respect.

(Footage of lia nain meeting plays)

KATE ARNOTT: After a lot of heated debate, the lia nain gave permission for their stories to be transformed into movement and dance. Some parts of the story, though, were deemed too sacred to be revealed in an open forum.

At the next step, Catherine Simmonds rounded up the local dance group.

CATHERINE SIMMONDS: Put to the group: 'what about the notion of you enacting the stories?' And they were 'wow! Yes! We want to know. We want to know. We've never heard these stories.'

(Footage of dancers rehearsing plays)

KATE ARNOTT: Hours and hours of rehearsals followed, until the performers were ready to team up with the lia nain and share the creation stories in public for the first time.

(Footage of performance plays)

It was also the first time the stories had been told using theatre and the first time many people in the community have seen live performance.

(Footage of dancers plays)

Tradition in East Timor keeps men in the most powerful community positions, and so one of the aims of this project was to empower women who play a crucial role in daily life. Catherine Simmonds wanted to make sure they too had a presence on the stage.

In the end, the entire community had a chance to be involved in the project, including her son Luca.

LUCA, SON: I feel really lucky because not much kids my age get to go to a third world country like this.

Once I get older I think maybe I can do a job like this. Overall I've just had a fabulous time and I'm speechless because I think it's just a great experience.

KATE ARNOTT: Many Hands international says re building cultural knowledge can go a long way towards improving the community's health and well-being. And there's now a real thirst among the young people of Lospalos for that knowledge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE PERFORMER (subtitled): They don't know the history of where they are from. Through the project that they did like doing the theatre, they are like, I'm from this one, so immediately they know their history and they say they were really excited.
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