Synopsis by Mark Deming
A small nation who have been the subject of an ongoing tragedy since 1975, East Timor is located between Australia and Indonesia and for years was under Portuguese rule. When Portugal's military dictatorship collapsed in 1975, many in Timor expected to finally gain independence. However, the nation was instead forcibly taken over by the Indonesians, with the support of Australia and the United States; Indonesian forces have often used torture and mass murder to maintain control and eliminate opposition in East Timor. Punitive Damage tells the story of Kamal Bamadhaj, a 21-year-old college student and political activist from New Zealand. In 1991, representatives from Portugal and the United Nations were scheduled to visit East Timor to investigate the political situation, and Bamadhaj traveled to East Timor to join what was expected to be a celebration of independence. However, Portugal and the U.N. backed out at the last minute. While in East Timor, Bamadhaj attended a demonstration protesting deaths at the hands of the military when Indonesian troops began firing on the unarmed group. 200 people died, including Bamadhaj. Punitive Damage features interviews with Bamadhaj's mother, his friends, and witnesses to the massacre that cost him his life, and also follows a landmark court case in which a U.S. court levied a $23 million fine for punitive damages against the Indonesian general who gave the orders for the attack (who is said to have called the judgment "a joke"). Noted political analyst Noam Chomsky has written extensively on the situation in East Timor; for his perspectives, see the film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, or read his essay on East Timor in the anthology The Chomsky Reader.