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TAPOL mourns loss of Max Stahl, legendary filmmaker who committed his life to East Timor

03 November 2021
 Christopher Wenner aka Max Stahl


TAPOL is sad to report the death of Max Stahl, the legendary journalist and filmmaker who will be remembered, above all, for filming the Santa Cruz massacre in East Timor on November 12, 1991. The massacre of 271 people happened in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, where Indonesian security forces opened fire on graveside mourners. It was a turning point in the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Max’s footage came about whilst he was preparing material for the television documentary ‘In Cold Blood: the Massacre of East Timor’. It was shown in many countries and played an important role in pressurising western governments, and the incoming Clinton administration, to abandon support for Indonesia’s illegal occupation of East Timor. 

The funeral at Santa Cruz was for Sebastiao Gomes, a youth who had been killed in the compound of Dili’s Motael Church by a military unit formed by Prabowo Subianto, then head of Kopassus, the Indonesian army special forces. The security forces were unaware that Max, whose known name was Christopher Wenner, had filmed the episode from within the cemetery and then smuggled the footage out of the country with colleagues. Other foreigners, among them the journalists Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman, later provided eyewitness accounts of the massacre. A young New Zealander, Kamal Bamadhaj, perished in the atrocity. Max dedicated ‘In Cold Blood…’ to the memory of Tomas ‘Belir’ Ximenes, a teacher who was filmed bleeding profusely from the leg. Ximenes was taken to the Wirahusada military hospital in Lahane, Dili, where all visitors and requests for information about the 50 dead and at least 89 seriously wounded taken there were denied; his body has never been located. 

TAPOL was approached by both Max and Peter Gordon (co Directors of the documentary) to help in the research and preparation for this film in early 1991. We worked closely with Timorese resistance leaders and progressive groups in Indonesia to facilitate access to East Timor for Peter and Max. Then later we brought Max together with John Pilger in the filming of ‘Death of a Nation’ 1994. Max worked for some months in the mountains of East Timor interviewing many torture victims of Indonesian troops and police.

After East Timor achieved independence in 2002, Max established the Max Stahl Audio-Visual Archive Center in Dili, which served as a repository for footage of the new nation’s troubled liberation from Indonesian control. Later, Max and his associates continued to record East Timor’s history after independence. Max embraced his role as the archive’s director. Fluent in multiple languages, he could often be found jumping between conversations in Portuguese, English, and the local language, Tetum. The archive provided young East Timorese filmmakers with their first taste of film production and archiving. These young filmmakers also helped to produce films which were as much an educational resource as an invaluable record for posterity. In recent years, the archive has worked together with a team from the University of Coimbra in Portugal to digitise the archive’s footage, making it available online.

Max’s funeral will be held at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane, Australia, on November 12 at 10am. His ashes will be interred at the Santa Cruz cemetery, Dili, on a date likely to be around mid-December.

May Max Stahl’s life and work continue to inspire courage in future generations and the pursuit of the right to self-determination in the face of militarism and oppression.