Balibo: film that forces viewers to think and ask questions about tragic fate of six news reporters

Robert Connolly, “Balibo” (2009)

Imaginatively constructed as three stories that initially fit into one another like Russian matryoshka dolls, of which two more or less spread out and run parallel for much of the film, “Balibo” recounts the fate of five Australian TV reporters who disappeared in Balibo in East Timor in October 1975, and of their compatriot journalist Roger East who investigated the men’s deaths and was himself killed by Indonesian soldiers a few weeks after the original murders. Often billed as a political thriller, the film also dramatises several accounts and stories by East Timorese people, represented by the fictional character of Juliana da Costa, and pays tribute to them and the heroic struggle of their people for independence from Portugal and then Indonesia. The film acts on another level as a road movie in which Roger East, played by Anthony LaPaglia, becomes a close friend of young revolutionary Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaacs), the founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor aka Fretelin, who invited East to come to East Timor to see and report on the events there.

LaPaglia carries much of “Balibo” as the veteran journalist who could have had a cushy public relations job back in Australia but chose instead to go rough in abandoned villages and tropical countryside to find the five reporters after Ramos-Horta shows him their photographs and tells him they are missing. LaPaglia’s performance is understated and matter-of-fact in the manner of stony-faced, hard-nosed Australian news reporting of the 1970’s; later in the film, when he has been to Balibo, seen some horrific sights and returned to Dili, the full impact of what happened to the reporters hits him and he breaks down silently in tears. LaPaglia plays his part quietly and well, giving a good impression of a seasoned reporter who refuses to take no for an answer, pushes himself to walk through thick forest and grassland under army fire and banters with Ramos-Horta on their trek.

As Ramos-Horta, Isaacs doesn’t have a lot to do beyond looking good, being a fired-up revolutionary and bickering with East as they walk to Balibo. He disappears from the film after they reach the town and his character doesn’t appear again until the very end. The actors who play the five TV reporters in the film’s recreation of their journey to Balibo to document the Indonesian invasion are portrayed as chummy (though their employers are rival TV stations – in those days, Australian free-to-air TV channels were more co-operative and less competitive), drinking and laughing together, doing the best job they can filming and reporting on what they see under difficult and stressful conditions, and collecting stories from the local people. Their death scene is painful and shocking in its casual and brutal nature; the men’s fear and near-hysteria as the killers pursue them are very real but not overly dramatic, particularly in a scene in which one man, hiding behind a door, panics and considers his options wordlessly before bravely opening the door to face his killers.

All other significant roles in “Balibo” are played by East Timorese amateurs. The role of Juliana is well played by a young girl who as the eight-year-old Juliana makes friends with East and later sees him being killed, and by an older woman in her 30’s who tells of her life under Indonesian occupation to an Australian man at the time of East Timor’s independence in 1999. Viewers will warm to the young girl who is very charming in the small amount of screen-time she gets.

Filmed on a small budget, the movie relies partly on handheld camera work which means a lot of it looks jumpy to viewers. The story of the five Australian reporters appears in bleached-out, over-bright colours: the film-makers use lenses typical of what was used in Australian news reporting in 1975 to film that part of the plot. Unfortunately, many historical details are glossed over and the despicable role of the Australian and American governments in tacitly approving the invasion – it’s known that US president Gerald Ford and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger passed through Indonesia a few days before the invasion took place, and that then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam believed East Timor should be “integrated” into Indonesia – is reduced to Ramos-Horta’s scatological comment on a photo of Whitlam and Indonesian president Suharto in a newspaper. What happens to Ramos-Horta after he and East arrive in Balibo isn’t made clear though viewers who don’t know much about East Timor’s current politics will be relieved to find he survived the Indonesian occupation in exile and became president of East Timor in 2007. As president, Ramos-Horta has so far been lukewarm on the idea of prosecuting members of the Indonesian military for war crimes against East Timor that left over 180,000 of his people dead.

Apart from its limitations, “Balibo” is an excellent movie that is worth watching. It doesn’t provide much historical background to the tragic events but as drama it’s intended to get audiences thinking about the fate of the Balibo Five and East, and to demand answers from the Australian, American and Indonesian governments about why the six men were killed and their deaths covered up for so long.

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