On Wednesday, July 18 of this year, the day after results in Timor Leste's latest parliamentary elections were announced, Alex Ben-Mayor was cruising the streets of Dili on a mission to buy carpentry bolts.
He was part of a team installing a preview production of Doku Rai (You, Dead Man, I Don't Believe You), a collaboration between Melbourne's Black Lung theatre company and Dili-based groups Liurai Fo’er and Galaxy.
As his car approached the Comoro bridge, just past the Fretlin headquarters, an area that has long been a flashpoint for post-independence gang violence, the car in front suddenly pulled up under a volley of stones. "Before I really knew what was happening," says Ben-Mayor, "the driver had jumped out and opened fire."
Though shaken, he escaped unscathed from the ensuing gunfight.
Over the next several days, as violence continued to flare across the city, a six o'clock curfew was imposed on cast and crew, meaning that the scheduled evening preview performances had to be cancelled, although the matinees went ahead.
Since then, the situation in Dili has calmed. The sense of civil peace that has characterised the fledgling nation's capital since at least 2010 has returned.
"It was a brief moment that I hadn't experienced before," says director Thomas Wright of Black Lung, "where you felt that everything was combustible."
With a cast of eight, four from Black Lung and four from the two Timorese companies, Doku Rai will finally premiere in Australia on 21 August at the Darwin Festival, before hitting Melbourne a week later.
The show, described as the "creation of a religion and the chronicle of its downfall", was devised during an intense two-month development process earlier this year in an empty building on the island of Atauro, just off the coast from Dili.
"We basically has to build a theatre, working with people in local construction and local artists," says Wright about the groundwork leading up to this process, "along with a regular stream of their friends and relatives, as well as our own friends and relatives."
The space they created is completely contained. "It was like a large compound," says Wright, referencing some of the cultish religious themes that emerge through the show. "We wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible for that two-month development period."
For Wright, this is the culmination of many years' work, not only in preparing facilities on Atauro and deepening his relationship with friends and colleagues in Timor Leste, but also working furiously in Australia to find the money to make it all happen.
"For a company that had never applied for a grant before, being quite staunch and thinking that we should do everything independently, that was a confronting process for us," admits Wright.
Tucked in beside the coastal village of Beloi, which lies midway along Atauro's only major road, a winding seven-kilometre stretch of occasional asphalt, the new Black Lung compound is actually a renovated old Indonesian-built posada, a kind of hotel in the Portuguese colonial style.
A Portuguese design, adopted by Indonesians, now occupied by Australians. It's like a symbol of Timorese history. But such overt political analogies don't interest Black Lung, according to Wright.
"You can't make a work in Timor without some kind of political resonance," he says, "but there's also no need to go straight for the jugular."
Instead, Wright and his collaborators are pursuing the more mythical dimensions of violence, striving for a mode of performance that might replicate the extreme movement from fiction into legend.
Atauro is an eerily appropriate ground for such an exploration. For more than a hundred years the island was used as a colonial prison by the Portuguese, a place to stow native rebels, including the young king Dom Boaventura, who died a prisoner on the island in 1913, but whose spirit was invoked for protection by the East Timorese in 1999 as they resisted the pro-Indonesian militias.
It's fascinating material for Black Lung, once the darlings of the independent theatre scene in Melbourne, whose work has always circled uneasily around submerged ideas of masculinity, liberation and violence.
"It's no accident that we've ended up here, but the phenomenal way in which it re-contextualises things is what is interesting," says Wright. "It sharpens the point. Sometimes in a way that has been difficult to manage, because when you're dealing with people who have lost the entirety of their families, you can't throw the same terms around with our usual level of bravado."
In particular, the group has been cautious in dealing with the violence that followed elections in 2006, when Dili and Timor exploded in a confusion of sectarian and gang violence.
"No one really seems to know why," says Wright, who counts Major Michael Stone, the one-time military advisor to former-president Jose Ramos-Horta, as a close friend. "You had gang feuds playing out, the police fighting the military, old family rivalries boiling up to the surface, easterners fighting westerners, and in the middle of it all you had the UN, the ADF and NZDF."
Just as with the flare-up in July that so startled the show's producer, Alex Ben-Mayor, these moments of communal violence seem intermittently to catch-up with the Timorese, bubbling over into the streets, or returning like a brief echo of the nation's long history of violent encounters, with the Portuguese, the Japanese, the Indonesians, the militias and now the international peacekeeper.
In fact, the seeds of Doku Rai were planted in an attempt to depict another infamous act of violence on the soil of Timor Leste. It was on the set of Robert Connolly's Balibo, in 2008, when Thomas Wright first met their current Timorese collaborators.
"I met this really striking group of young guys," explains Wright. "We were all four-and-half years younger than we are now, all in our early twenties, and there was this great similarity in our aesthetic sense, in the way that we work and in our sense of humour. But at the same time there were these extraordinary barriers in terms of our experiences."
Osme Gonsalves, for example, who is the founder of both groups, Liurai Fo’er and Galaxy, was in the mountains with the guerrillas during the independence struggle, while Melchior Fernandes, or Mellie, the lead singer and manager of the band Galaxy, was fighting against the militias before he was even eighteen. Then there's the fact that all of them grew up in tiny villages in a country where a quarter of the population was killed during the Indonesian occupation.
It's heavy material for a bunch of cocky young Melbourne artists to confront, but Wright believes it's also heavy material for the Timorese to drag around as artists, and he sees himself as taking up "a little of the burden" which they carry as their nation's first artists.
"There's an enormous amount of national pride in Timor, in a way that we couldn't understand, because they fought for it directly," explains Wright. "So I suppose what we wanted to give them was an opportunity to not to have to reflect that at every turn."
It does raise interesting questions about whether Black Lung, in reaching out like this to relieve the artistic "burden" of national pride, are in fact integrating themselves into the structures of neo-colonial care of which they are otherwise suspicious. Or, more controversially, whether they are only catching a ride on the spirit of Timorese resistance, assuaging the inevitable feelings of inferiotity that plague all middle-class causeless rebels by martyring themselves in sympathy with a third-world nation's "first" artists.
Black Lung, however, is a company with an exaggerated tendency toward self-analysis, and are more rigorous than most in questioning their own processes and motives, so such questions are simply more grist for their creative mill.
"It's forced us to scrutinise our own way of working," says Wright, "and the way people deal and relate to the kind of paternal relationship that we have with third-world countries. You have to confront a lot of dualities. This show is really about scrutinising those dualities."
Looking ahead, Wright and his fellow Black Lung provocateurs are already discussing future projects with the Timor Leste crew. One of the great problems for Black Lung has always been finding artists on the same wave length, even at the very beginning, back in 2006, when they were developing their grungy theatrette above Kent Street in Fitzroy, it was rare that they could connected with other local artists. "We’ve had a lot of interest from people," said Wright at the time, speaking to Chris Kohn, "and we really feel for the time being that it’s very difficult to source people who have a similar concept of work."
Now that they've at last found this group of individuals who so nearly reflect their own interests, they're keen to extend the collaboration.
"The way Thomas described it to me," says Ben-Mayor, "is he said, 'I'm in this situation where we just happened to find these guys and I think we're really going to gel. So we'll probably have to go over there.'"
"It was pretty unheard of," confirms Wright. "Usually you'd find the money and bring these artists over and make the work here. We decided to take the whole production over there."
After headlining at the Darwin Festival and a season at Arts House in Melbourne, Doku Rai will continue to tour festivals around Australia. Later this year they'll head to an arts market in Zagreb, following up on interest that has already been expressed by a number of European festivals.