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Tale of love, power and life with Gusmao

Sydney Morning Herald - May 5, 2013

Karl Quinn – Kirsty Sword Gusmao answers the door of her mother's house on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula wearing flat-heeled boots, a patterned jacket, a hint of make-up and no hair. "It was starting to itch," she says of the short bobbed wig she's taken to wearing. "So I took it off. I hope it's OK."

East Timor's first First Lady – her husband, Xanana Gusmao, went from resistance leader to president when the country gained its independence in May 2002, and is now Prime Minister – was home for Christmas when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment has kept her there since.

Losing her hair "hasn't been as traumatic as I thought it would be", she says. "Losing the eyebrows and eyelashes is actually worse. I had to buy my first eyeliner pencil ever."

Though treatment continues until August, her prognosis is good. "It's a hideous process, but there's not a day goes by I don't count my lucky stars," she says.

Were she a simple villager in East Timor, with no means to travel abroad for treatment, "you'd basically just wait your day to die".

Her three sons – aged eight, 10 and 12 – are with her for the duration. They're enrolled in local schools but desperately missing home. Their father visits when he can and will be there on Thursday when Alias Ruby Blade, a new documentary about their relationship and the birth of East Timor, opens the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival.

The story is told in large part through video footage shot by Ms Sword Gusmao beginning in the early 1990s. She'd long thought about doing something with the material herself – "I'm a bit of a frustrated filmmaker from years back," she says – and when New York-based filmmakers Alex and Tanya Meillier approached her, she was at first reluctant.

"But then I thought there's very little likelihood I'm going to have the luxury of time to turn it into a film – I might as well allow it to be used."

Perhaps the most remarkable scenes are those shot inside Mr Gusmao's prison cell. The conditions are basic but far from brutal and he has what amounts to a small office, complete with mobile phone, video camera and laptop computer – all of them smuggled in by Ms Sword Gusmao and her contacts.

"In the early stages it was notes secreted in the sole of a shoe or the lining of a cap," she says. Later, the "eminently corruptible" guards happily made bulky deliveries to and from her door.

Mr Gusmao was no ordinary prisoner, of course. "He was a VIP from the day he was captured." He was also charming.

"He won people over very quickly, and that included senior members of the Ministry of Justice, police and military authorities," she says. "He managed to just sweet-talk his way out of some pretty sticky situations."

And into her affections, too. She had been aware of Xanana from the mid-1980s, as a student of Indonesian at Melbourne University. She became involved in the Timor Leste movement, started corresponding with Xanana in 1992 and they finally met for the first time in 1994.

"Did you imagine from the start you might one day end up with this latter-day Che Guevara?"

"No, of course not," she says, perhaps with more patience than the question warrants.

"In the early stages, when feelings between us started to develop, I was plagued by all sorts of doubts: 'Oh my god, I'm just infatuated by the image, the figure that he is, rather than the actual person. How could I possibly know him in these circumstances?'"

It was a reasonable question, of course. So, almost 20 years on, how does a relationship forged in such conditions fare in the outside world?

"I guess we've gone from an unconventional courtship to an unconventional marriage, in that we don't enjoy the same kinds of family and personal time a regular family would," she says.

"There's never been a dull moment, there's never been a normal moment, in our relationship, and every minute of our marriage has been dictated by the needs of the nation. And I guess we've both just resigned ourselves to the fact that is our fate."