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Holding Tightly: Custom and Healing in Timor-Leste

Lisa Palmer & Susanna Barnes

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. 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 teaches and researches on indigenous environmental knowledge and practices at the University of Melbourne. 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, London). Working also through visual methods she has directed two films, Wild Honey: Caring for bees in a divided land (2019, Ronin Films) and Holding Tightly: Custom and Healing in Timor-Leste (2021, Ronin Films).

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 (2021, Ronin Films) is her first visual methods collaboration.

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