A recreation of the events surrounding the shooting of five Australian journalists during Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975. Told through the eyes of a sixth Australian, Roger East, who is lured to East Timor by Jose Ramos-Horta to investigate the truth behind the death of the five men, who were supposedly "caught in cross-fire" during the invasion.
MELBOURNE FILM FESTIVAL: An overwhelming sense of urgency and immediacy hangs over Robert Connolly’s Balibo in its depiction of events that took place 34 years ago, which have never been adequately acknowledged, much less explained.
Balibo depicts the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor, during which five Australian-based journalists were killed for having filmed the illegal annexation. It is bold and defiant filmmaking that achieves in just 111 minutes what 34 years of politicking couldn’t: it exposes a shameful episode in Australia’s history during which principles gave way to pragmatism, and does so with confrontational, provocative, and above all, deeply affecting scenes that hold their own against some of the best moments of Australian cinema.
Connolly and co-writer David Williamson owe much to author Jill Jolliffe, whose book 'Cover Up’ (newly republished as 'Balibo’) first pieced together the truth about the deaths of the newsmen, in a direct challenge the prevailing Indo-Australian line that their deaths had been accidental (despite insurmountable evidence to the contrary, including eyewitness accounts).
Connolly and Williamson place this searing indictment of Australian foreign policy, complicity and cover up within the confines of a conventional political thriller. There's ample suspense, fast-paced action sequences, and a budding 'buddy’ sub-plot to satisfy a broad range of tastes, particularly with audiences unfamiliar with the story of the Balibo Five.
Connolly bookends his film with a young woman’s testimony at the 2001 Timor-Leste Commission For Reception, Truth and Reconciliation; her childhood recollections provide a conduit to flashbacks of the tumultuous period leading up to the invasion. The technique also paves the way to a closing montage that charts the successful outcome of her tiny half-island’s struggle for independence.
The story centres on the work of Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), a fellow Australian journalist whose investigations into the disappearance of the five men have (like so much associated with these events) previously gone unacknowledged. East is the reluctant hero of Balibo, a flawed man fighting his own demons until confronted by the chilling prospect that five of his colleagues have been murdered during an assignment in the strife-torn former Portuguese colony.
When we meet East in December 1975, the Darwin-based former newshound has long-since lost the taste for chasing leads and sniffing out stories; he wants nothing to do with the pushy East Timorese foreign minister who shows up to offer him a posting as head of the tiny nation’s media unit. East tells the young Jose Ramos Horta (Oscar Isaac) where to go, in no uncertain terms. However, in a demonstration of the diplomatic skills that would eventually see him installed as President of the free East Timor, the canny Ramos Horta appeals to East’s dormant professional curiosity and gives him the scoop about a group of journalists who have gone missing in recent weeks around the sea port of Balibo. Ramos Horta suspects foul play on the part of the Indonesians, whose warships are stationed in the waters off the coastline. Intrigued, East accompanies Ramos Horta to Timor in a search for the missing men.
Connolly and Williamson introduce the young journalists in a parallel narrative that paints them as eager, inquisitive, cheerful and competitive young men, tragically ignorant of the dangers that await them as they embark on their assignment. In many of the film’s lighter moments, Channel Seven’s Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley) and Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter) trade barbs with their network rivals, Nine’s Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips) and Brian Peters (Thomas Wright) as they try to outfox each other for a scoop in their coverage for their competing networks. Their competitiveness knows no bounds; despite a retreating ABC journalist’s warnings against making the trip to Balibo, their primary focus is on trumping their commercial TV rivals to get the first pictures of the Indonesian warships that dot the horizon from the Portuguese garrison in the coastal town.
As East learns the truth about the newsmen’s fate, we see the events unfold; scenes in which the journalists capture crucial evidence of the illegal landing and when pursued, mistakenly believe the militiamen might recognise the freedoms of the press, are nothing short of devastating. The events are depicted absent any underscore, which makes the frenzied aftermath, including the desperate breaths of winded asthmatic Shackleton, frighteningly claustrophobic and heartbreakingly real.
Balibo is an outstanding film that doesn’t buckle under the burden of its own importance; it is also highly entertaining and immensely emotional and signals a welcome return to powerful filmmaking that speaks to the Australian psyche. Indeed, the tragic heroes of Gallipoli and Breaker Morant share much in common with the spirited men of Balibo.