When asked to take part in a new film about the journey to faith of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan – two Australian men, members of the ‘Bali Nine’, who were executed for drug smuggling in Indonesia two years ago – it was a promise Melbourne pastor Christie Buckingham had made to Mr Sukumaran prior to his death that came to her mind.

It was not a promise that Rev Buckingham – who first met the men in 2011 and spent many hours with them over the ensuing years before going on to become Mr Sukumaran’s official spiritual advisor during his final moments - made lightly.

Christie and art works  

Rev Christie Buckingham, who is expected to narrate the new film, with portraits of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

 

“[I told him] I will speak to whoever, wherever, however – whether it’s one or 1,000 – I will speak out against the death penalty, I make you my solemn promise. And so he smiled and he was very accepting of that.”

- Rev Christie Buckingham, speaking of a promise she made to Myuran Sukumaran to continue advocating for the abolition of the death penalty after his death. 

When Mr Sukumaran first asked her to take a vow that she would continue to advocate against capital punishment after his death, she’d spent some time thinking about it before, just as he was about to be transferred to Nusa Kambangan, the Indonesian island on which he and Mr Chan and six other prisoners were shot dead by firing squad, she’d told him her answer.

“I said, I will,” Rev Buckingham, a pastor at Bayside Church in Melbourne’s south-east, recalled recently, speaking to Sight from Bali where she was preparing to mark the second anniversary of the men’s deaths on 29th April.

“[I told him] I will speak to whoever, wherever, however – whether it’s one or 1,000 – I will speak out against the death penalty, I make you my solemn promise. And so he smiled and he was very accepting of that.”

So when Adelaide-based film-maker Julian York approached her about participating in a new short documentary/drama about lead-up to the men’s deaths – and, in particular, the journey to faith they had taken, her response was that not only was this a chance to honour the promise she’d made to continue to advocate against the penalty, it was also a chance to get out part of their story which she believes needed to be told.

While she had already been approached and agreed to take part in another film about the men’s deaths, Rev Buckingham says that what appealed to her about this project – which carries the working title of Execution Island (named for the island on which the men were killed) – was its focus on the faith aspect of the men’s story.

“I thought…this is part of their story that’s got to be told because I don’t know how anybody would go to their death singing and rejoicing and being kind and forgiving those people tying them up and saying ‘I’m really sorry this is your job; [that] you have to do this’ without having the strength of their faith,” she says.

“And so when they approached me, I absolutely could see their heart behind it. And I’d seen there were so many people who had really questioned themselves, saying ‘Could I do that?’. Myu’s last words were ‘Jesus, I trust in you’. And I said to the Lord, ‘I want that to be my last words too’ and I just sensed the Lord saying back to me, ‘Well you better start practicing now’. And so I’m practicing that, I’m trusting Him with their legacy. And there are many people that are speaking out for them and [against] the death penalty - I am one voice in the chorus.”

Mr York says the idea for the film stemmed from an article Rev Buckingham had written about her experience as a spiritual counselor to Mr Sukumaran on the first anniversary of his death.

“[A]s a film-maker I’m aware of the power the media can play – especially in giving a voice to the voiceless – so that was my motivation…for contacting Christie to see if we could get the project off the ground. But then, as a Christian film-maker, I was really challenged by the testimony of both Andrew and Myu...I just thought it is a story that needs to be shared with the world.”

- Film-maker Julian York

“I remember following the story of Andrew and Myu closely as it was portrayed in the media and, I guess, like a lot of Australians, had an interest in it and literally felt sick to the stomach when I found that they were executed,” he says.

“I guess as time goes by, you forget, and then I saw that article that Christie [wrote] on the year anniversary and I thought, as a film-maker, how can I help her? In that article she had specifically stated that she had promised…that she would work tirelessly towards abolishing the death penalty.

“[A]s a film-maker I’m aware of the power the media can play – especially in giving a voice to the voiceless – so that was my motivation…for contacting Christie to see if we could get the project off the ground. But then, as a Christian film-maker, I was really challenged by the testimony of both Andrew and Myu and the fact they were singing worship songs right up until their death really made me think about my own spiritual journey. So I just thought it is a story that needs to be shared with the world.”

The film, which is expected to run no longer than 30 minutes, will focus on the last 72 hours in the lead-up to the executions and the relationship between Rev Buckingham and the two men as well as their relationships with the six other men who were executed that night (who, Mr York says, all became Christians).

“It’s kind of just an insight into, I guess, the environment before their executions but with a specific focus on their faith journey and the peace that they achieved through that and how they got to that point.”

The film-making team, which also includes producer Anton Bekker and cinematographer Jamie Humphris, is also looking to develop a longer-form documentary which looks at the legacy Mr Sukumaran and Mr Chan left behind.

“There are stories that I don’t think have come out in the media yet in terms of Australian drug addicts going over there to meet with them and coming back healed from those addictions,” says Mr York.

“They made a great difference to the people around them in prison. I think it’s pretty well documented that Andrew became a minister…[and] they were leading worship services, art classes and running programs within Kerobokan jail to make it a better place.”

And, as for its position on the death penalty, Mr York, a marketing professional who has previously made a couple of short movies through his company Three Kings Pictures including one about an Elvis impersonator and another about the odd phenomena of wife-carrying, says while the film doesn’t directly comment on the death penalty, it highlights some of the arguments against it.

“I think we’re doing that through showcasing that both Andrew and Myu had an amazing transformation, they were totally reformed, they were contributing to society around them to make it a better place.”

One of the biggest challenges in making the film, says Mr York, will be to capture a sense of the transformation that took place during those final hours as the men were executed on Nusa Kambangan, when what was a place of horror became a place of holiness.

“To capture that on film is going to be a great challenge so we still need a lot of prayer,” he says.

The film is being funded through monies raised on a crowd-funding platform known as the Australian Cultural Fund. Mr York says they are looking to raise just under $100,000, a sum which he describes as  “quite a professional budget for a short film”.

It’s early days yet and Mr York says they’re looking for an initial $10,000 to get the project started. Once it’s ‘green-lit’, there will be a six to eight week pre-production period, a week or two of shooting (at this stage the plan is to shoot the film at a site in South Australia) and then a couple of months of editing with the project ideally completed by October (and ready for submission to international film festivals early next year).

While film festivals will initially be the target audience, Mr York says they do intend on making the film available online and to Australian free-to-air and pay TV networks including the Australian Christian Channel.

“I have no problems with strong prison sentences. I have no problems with taking care of victims of crime – I think it's very important - but I also believe that the death penalty is…inhumane and it’s irreversible and it should not continue.”

“I would love to see it being used in churches…even in schools to educate people around drug awareness, too,” says Mr York. “This is something that I know through Christie that Andrew and Myu were really passionate about as well – about helping the next generation not to make the same mistakes that they did.”

For Rev Buckingham, meanwhile, the ramifications of her time with Mr Sukumaran and Mr Chan continue to play out in her life, particularly through her advocacy against capital punishment.

“I think for every Christian believer, they really need to think about this because the execution of Christ should really have been the last execution ever if we really believe He died for the sins of the world,” she says.

“And so executions shouldn’t even really be in our vocabulary and I think sometimes Christians tend to enjoy their ‘eye for an eye’ approach when it’s for someone else but when it’s for them they want grace extended…

“I have no problems with strong prison sentences. I have no problems with taking care of victims of crime – I think its very important - but I also believe that the death penalty is…inhumane and it’s irreversible and it should not continue.”

She adds that while Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran were very fortunate in that they had “good, grounded, God-fearing people” around them to support them on their journey, “not everybody has that”. “And I think that’s terribly, terribly sad.”

To support the film, head to https://australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/execution-island/ or kept up to date with the film's progress at www.facebook.com/executionislandfilm.