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November 28, 2021

Vale trailblazing filmmaker Max Stahl

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By David Bradbury

Max Stahl. Photo www.zap.aeiou.pt

One remarkable moment in history was captured courageously by Max Stahl. 

He kept his camera rolling under threat of being shot by Indonesian soldiers as they methodically went from gravesite to gravesite, executing the wounded and crippled who could not flee a murderous attack in the Santa Cruz cemetery, Dili East Timor 1991. 

On that day, 270 East Timorese youth, mostly, were killed along with a NZ student. 

There were many more unaccounted deaths, as soldiers took away a number of the wounded and injected them with cleaning fluid in the Dili hospital, or finished them off by smashing rocks on their heads as they pleaded for mercy on the ground. 

Throughout it all, Max defied visual commands on camera by the Indonesian officer (with shotgun) waving him to put the camera down. 

Max continued to film as the trapped East Timorese youth ran from one end of the steep walled enclosed cemetery to another fleeing the automatic rifle fire. 

Max was then taken back to military headquarters for interrogation, feigned that he needed to go to the toilet, then buried the second tape he’d just shot half of which showed the Indos stoning to death the wounded. He knew that as he re-entered the interrogation room, the first thing Indo intel would demand of him was to see his camera. He’d already hidden the precious first tape in a plastic bag hastily buried in the dirt next to a grave. 

When all the officers could see when reviewing his tape was ‘snow’, he pretended that his camera mustn’t have worked. And they let him go. 

He then asked the rattled western journalists, which included Amy Goodman (now famous in America for her Democracy Now TV show on PBS), and Saskia Kouwenberg, who now lives at Nimbin, and writes for the Nimbin Good Times, if one of them would return that night to retrieve the tape. 

Max had no takers. They’d just lost a friend that morning – student Kamahl. So, Max donned a full faced motorbike helmet and went back that night to retrieve the tape and take it to the outside world.

Max’s funeral was last Friday in Brisbane, after a battle with cancer. It was 30 years to the day from when he filmed the Dili massacre, November 12, 1993. 

That blatant evidence of unrelenting murder on camera as the Timorese youth fled with a wailing siren pitch echoing out behind their screams did what no other single or multi-action of courage by anyone – Timorese or foreigner – had done to advance Timor’s claim for independence. 

It went viral around the world’s TV news networks of the time. 

No slippery, slimy western politicians or UN official could deny the veracity of what Max had recorded that day. 

Saskia smuggled the tape out in her undies, having bloodied her nose to then rub the blood on her underwear so if she was stripped searched by the Indo fascists, they would reel back in horror at her ‘period’.

Max Stahl was his known name, but his birth name on his passport was Christopher Wenner, which he used on his second entry to East Timor in 1993. He was freelancing filming for John Pilger’s film, Death of Nation.  

Max also covered the Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in 1995. 

For more, see this clip: https://youtu.be/rRVu6517kZs

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