Private Project

Holding Tightly: Custom and Healing in Timor-Leste

Healing in Timor-Leste is rarely straightforward. Timorese people acknowledge and embrace multiple pathways to healing in a complex interplay between spiritual care, comfort and personal connection. Through lifelong observation and learning, they trial a variety of practices and pass down their knowledge to the next generation.
Holding Tightly observes seven approaches to healing in remote, rural and urban parts of the Baucau municipality in the country’s east, spanning contexts and experiences from the armed resistance era to the independence period. According to their circumstances and access to resources, families share treatments for everyday ailments, while specialist healers hone their diagnostic and therapeutic skills for more complicated conditions. Medicinal plant, divinatory and bone setting knowledge is continually developed and refined according to need and opportunity. Within this diversity are common threads of shared belief, respect, cultural vitality, commitment and resilience. While working independently from formal health institutions, practitioners highlight challenges and opportunities for mutual coordination.
Filmed over a three-year period, Holding Tightly is a contribution to a longer-term research collaboration between the directors and a diverse set of healing practitioners in the young nation-state of Timor-Leste. The film asks viewers to consider what we understand health and wellbeing to mean, showing how healing is intimately entangled with forms of belief and care grounded in deep connections between people and their environments.

  • Lisa Palmer
    Wild Honey: Caring for Bees in a Divided Land
  • Susanna Barnes
  • Project Title (Original Language):
    Hametin Hatutan Lisan no Ai-moruk iha Timor-Leste
  • Project Type:
  • Runtime:
    30 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    April 19, 2021
  • Production Budget:
    10,000 AUD
  • Country of Origin:
  • Country of Filming:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
  • Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) Shorts
    July 7, 2021
    Official Selection
  • Society of Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival (SVAFMF) 2021

    United States
    November 1, 2021
    Official Selection
  • Dili International Film Festival
    October 12, 2021
    Official selection
  • SGEAS Seminar Series, University of Melbourne
    October 12, 2021
  • University of Saskatchewan

    October 15, 2021
  • Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies

    United States
    November 5, 2021
  • Queen Mary University of London

    United Kingdom
    November 10, 2021
  • Timor Leste Studies Association

    December 8, 2021
    Online screening
  • Canadian Anthropological Society Annual Meeting
    May 12, 2022
  • Melbourne Knowledge Week, Indigenous Film Festival
    March 14, 2022
Distribution Information
  • Ronin Films
    Country: Australia
Director Biography - Lisa Palmer, Susanna Barnes

Lisa Palmer teaches and researches on indigenous environmental knowledge and practices at the University of Melbourne. She lives in Melbourne and regularly travels to Timor-Leste to carry out research and visit extended family. She has published widely and is the author of an ethnography on people’s complex relations with water in Timor-Leste titled Water politics and spiritual ecology: Custom, environmental governance and development (2015, Routledge). Working also through visual methods she has directed two films, Wild Honey: Caring for bees in a divided land and Holding Tightly: Custom and Healing in Timor-Leste.

Susanna Barnes teaches on development, cultural landscapes, cross-cultural health and healing at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research focuses on customary forms of land tenure and natural resource management as well as customary approaches to health and well-being. She is co-author of an inter-disciplinary study of property relations and social resilience in Timor-Leste (2016, Routledge). Holding Tightly: Custom and Healing in Timor-Leste is her first visual methods collaboration.

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Director Statement

Filmed over a three-year period, Holding Tightly is a contribution to a larger research collaboration between the directors and a diverse set of healing practitioners in the young nation-state of Timor-Leste. The filmmakers Susanna Barnes and Lisa Palmer have each carried out extended ethnographic research in locations across the country. Between 2013 and 2015, Barnes, Palmer and Ritsuko Kakuma, with funding support from the University of Melbourne, initiated an interdisciplinary scoping study in partnership with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Health and the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL). Led by global mental health expert Kakuma, this study aimed to improve understanding of Timor-Leste’s customary health and healing practices, and to explore the potential of integrating these practices with modern psychological and clinical methods. The findings of this research informed the ideas for this film, its structure and approach.

The making of Holding Tightly is also grounded in Palmer’s ongoing research collaborations with Tetun, Waima’a and Makasae language speakers in the Baucau region. More recent partnerships with Barnes, former mental health nurse Fransisco Almeida and local customary specialist and veterinary officer Celestinu Freitas have focused on customary approaches to health and healing in the town of Baucau and the rural community of Venilale in the Baucau municipality. In collaboration with Almeida and Ministry of Health mental health nurse Luis da Cunha Rego, Palmer and Barnes first interviewed the healers in the opening and closing sequences of the film in 2015. In collaboration with Almeida and Freitas, Palmer then began establishing relationships with other healers in the Baucau municipality and commenced filming in early 2017. Contributing to this collaborative process, Palmer had a pre-existing long term research relationship with Baucau-based healer and custodian of the water Jose da Costa. Felizarda da Costa (Nyoti in the film), and her children are related to Palmer through marriage. Filming visits, usually two or more, were made to each of the healers between 2017 and 2019. In mid-2019, Barnes flew from Canada to join Palmer, Almeida and Freitas in the field for one week to film additional footage and consolidate the narrative sequences of the film. On this final occasion, several healers invited their own patients and neighbours to be a part of the filming process.

Fransisco Almeida lives in the town of Venilale in Baucau. He is a retired mental health nurse and began working as a health worker during his time as a FALINTIL resistance fighter in the mountains in the 1970s. Prior to the Indonesian invasion he was a Timorese member of the colonial Portuguese military.

Celastinu Freitas is a senior custodian of the Ledatame Ikun origin house in Darasula, Baucau. He studied to be a veterinary officer during the Indonesian occupation and works for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries in Baucau.