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A Search for the Truth

Interview with Thomas Watson by Patricia Teunisse, Secretary of The Indo Project. Also published in Moesson International.

On October 31, 2021, The Indo Project and Moesson attended the Netherlands premiere of The Past Ended on Mango Street. The documentary is the vision of Thomas Watson, who  narrates the film and was directed by Jean Baptiste Breliere. It tells the story of Thomas’ search for the truth of his grandmother’s experiences during World War II living in the Japanese occupied Dutch East Indies. As is so often the case, her story was shrouded in mystery. After she passed, Thomas set out to find the truth.  

Question: Thomas, you really wanted to know what had happened to your grandmother, what did you hope to find? 

That changed during the creation of the film. I was naive in many respects when I first began this project. My assumption was the history of the camps would be well preserved and there would be vast stores of information and people who could answer the question everyone in my family wanted to know – was my grandmother a sex-slave? All I had to do was ask the right questions or find the right document and the question would be answered.

I realized that my grandmother was the only person who could tell me what happened and my opportunity to find out would be lost forever after her passing. The only thing I could find was internal peace for me, and to fight for justice and truth on behalf of my grandmother and the thousands of other concentration camp victims.

I did achieve that peace when I put the plaque of my grandmother on the barrack in Lampersari she was imprisoned in. My other goal is still a work in progress.

Question: You said  that your grandmother did not want to share her story because it was too painful. Why was it so important to find out that painful truth? 

My friend Jean-Baptiste Brelière was really the one who impressed upon me how important it was to find out what happened. As a foreigner and as a European whose family had also experienced the trauma of WWII, Jean-Baptiste could see clearly that we were suffering from decades of silence, and that we needed to have an answer.

Growing up, my grandmother’s past was this remote, untouchable, and exotic part of history that seemed to have no influence on me or my family. I was unaware of the very real, subterranean power that the concentration camp had over my family. Indeed, I was too afraid to ask any questions about Indonesia at all. Yet all of us were suffering because we did not know if my grandmother had been a sex-slave. Finding out this truth would end the suffering. 

Question: Did you think that knowing the truth would change something in your family dynamic? Did it?

I forget who said it but ‘the truth will set you free’ comes to mind when I think about this. How that freedom manifests is different for everyone. For me, it has brought me closer to her. I have gained greater love and appreciation for her and what she went through. Indeed she is a constant source of inspiration and strength for me. Now, I can appreciate that it didn’t just affect her, it affected our whole family. From the reason I live in Australia, to the way I relate to other people. It is liberating to find out where you come from and why you are the way you are. 

Question: What issues arose while trying to get this film made?

What was very specific to our situation was the very insidious attitude toward the period and survivors held by many people – that conditions in the concentration camps weren’t bad and the Japanese didn’t commit war crimes. It meant that some researchers didn’t take our discoveries seriously. We even had to fight to use the word ‘concentration camp’. This is why it is so important that there are more documentaries about it, so the world fully appreciates what happened. 

Question: If there are other Indos who feel strongly about their family stories, what do you suggest they do to preserve  this history?

Act as quickly as possible! We have about 5 years, at best, before the last generation of concentration camp survivors either develop neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or pass away. Their stories need to be recorded otherwise, history could disappear forever. I think that a filmed interview is best because you can see and hear the person. There are so few first-hand accounts of this period, we must do everything we can to preserve the memories to combat the outright lies about the concentration camps. 

Question: When will the film be available and what are the details for interested readers?

The film is available now from Vimeo (rent at $3.99 or buy for $9.99).

Question: What is the origin of your collaborative partnership?

I used to volunteer at a museum in Melbourne. During one of my shifts, Jean-Baptiste approached me wanting to know who selected the student films. Over lunch, I mentioned my grandmother’s story and Jean-Baptiste was absolutely fascinated as he lived in Indonesia and had never heard of the Japanese-run concentration camps. Immediately he suggested we make a documentary. The rest is history. 

Question: Are you surprised by the reactions to the film so far? 

Before I made this documentary, I always thought that my background was just Dutch. While I knew that I had Indonesian heritage, I felt that my grandmother was culturally western. I never expected to find the Indisch culture, its richness and variety, which continues to exist despite the War. It has been marvelous to find and connect with culture that I never knew was missing from my soul, and I am eager to find out more. 

Question: What do you treasure the most as a result of completing this project?

To be able to record and uncover the very last fragments of a period of history that has been under researched, to bring justice to the concentration camp victims, is something that Jean-Baptiste and I are immensely proud of. It helps us to keep on working, even when times are tough.  

For me, and this is going to sound very sappy, I treasure the friendship and artistic energy of Jean-Baptiste every day. This film would not have been possible without his skills as a filmmaker on a purely practical level, or his ongoing encouragement during the very difficult moments we experienced while creating it.  

Question: What is your next anticipated project? And how can we support you? 

On 30 October 2021, my great uncle Robert Holman, whom we interviewed for the documentary, passed away. We  were absolutely devastated and it made us realize how urgently we needed to record the memories of the concentration camp survivors. Our next project will be about the children of the camps. 

The best way to support this project is to purchase The Past Ended on Mango Street

Movie Poster

The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of the information and content of this article.

Are you, or do you know someone who was a child interned in a Japanese concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies? And do you want to help Thomas with his next project?  Please contact us at info@theindoproject.org.

4 Comments

    • Hello Bedo, thank you so much for sending this message. My name is Thomas Watson. We’d be very interested in speaking to you as we are currently in the process of creating another documentary about the people who spent their childhood in the Japanese-run concentration camps. If you are interested in being a part of this project please send an email to info@thepastendedonmangostreet.com. We look forward to hearing from you.

  1. Hi sorry for asking but is Jean Baptiste also of Indo extraction or what is his link to Indonesia and/or Japanese occupation?

    Thomas, was your family of Indo/Dutch origin or perhaps British and living in the Dutch Indies during WWII?

    Thanks for adding your biographies if possible. Would be wonderful to understand the entire story in better context.

    I agree that silence is what reigned among most people after these events. As was the case with my family.
    But I agree with Jean Baptiste entirely that silencing will only create more confusion.
    Merci pour son soutien et implication dans ce projet! And to you Thomas for being inquisitive and persistent.

    • Hello Alex, no need to apologise about asking questions. Jean-Baptiste and I are grateful when people who watched the film interact with us. We are also touched by your very kind words.

      Jean-Baptiste does not have any Dutch Indonesian heritage. He did, however, live in Indonesia and South East Asia for several years. The reason he wanted to make a documentary about my grandmother was because he had never heard about the concentration camps in Indonesia. He has also been fascinated by WWII history, and in particular the war in the Asia-Pacific, since as far back as he can remember.

      As for me, I am Dutch-Indonesian on my grandmother’s side. I am not too sure how long my grandmother’s family had been in the Dutch East Indies. I think it must have been since the 19th century, though they could have been their much longer. My grandmother’s father was born in the Dutch East Indies and my grandmother’s mother, The Netherlands.

      On a side not may I ask what your relationship with Indonesia is?

      You can contact me at info@thepastendedonmangostreet.com should you have any further questions. I would be pleased to give you information you want.

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