In November 1975, four weeks after five Australian journalists are reported missing, veteran foreign correspondent Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) is approached by twenty-five year old José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) who attempts to recruit him to run the East Timor News Agency. Roger East agrees but only if he is first given complete access to the nation to find out the fate of Channel Seven's Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley) and Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter), and from Channel Nine, Brian Peters (Thomas Wright) and Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips). Four weeks earlier, the journalists had made their way to Balibo determined to film the imminent Indonesian invasion. On the morning of October 16 all five men are executed in cold blood by the invading Indonesian troops, after clearly identifying themselves as Australian journalists. Their bodies are burnt. East is also captured and killed.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The story of the five Australian journalists brutally killed by Indonesian forces in East Timor during the invasion of the country is, like Gallipoli, an eternal glue to the people of East Timor and Australia. It’s an epic story in that it touches on all the key elements of human affairs, from war and death to honour and deep human decency – as well as being a story about the extreme ends of the job of journalism. There is no question that Robert Connolly’s film unravels the real story – the story that both Indonesian and Australian Governments have stubbornly refused to admit.
But the way the story is structured works to defuse the film emotionally. And the story is as much about Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) who follows the newsmen four weeks after their foray into Balibo where they meet the invading Indonesians. The device is both confusing and clunky, eating into the primary story about the other five men. There are scenes with Jose Ramos Horta (Oliver Isaac) in the company of East followed by him in the company of the 'Balibo five' which require mental gymnastics to unravel. The one dramatic benefit of the intercutting is that the climactic confrontation and killings can be positioned closer to the end of the film. But this comes at a high price, switching the storytelling point of view back and forth. How much more potent it might be if it was told from the one point of view - that of the five newsmen.
The film is book-ended by an interview with a Timorese woman (played by Bea Viegas) who was a child at the time of the invasion; it is established as if we are to see her story, but in fact she is hardly present for much of the rest of the action, which also confuses the point of view from which the story is told.
Quibbles aside, Balibo is a powerful film, notable for a remarkable performance by Oliver Isaac as the young Horta, plus a sensitive, moving performance from Anthony LaPaglia and for the very real sense of place - thanks to actual East Timor locations. The Indonesians don't come off too well, as you'd expect, but the performances are terrific (and chilling). Lisa Gerrard's infinite good taste delivers a series of music cues that are beautiful yet melancholy in the way only she can.
Review by Louise Keller:
Highlighting the consequences of action and inaction, the brutal and shocking true story of the murder of five journalists in East Timor is a potent Australian story whose details have remained controversial for over 30 years. There is nothing but truth emanating from Anthony LaPaglia and Oscar Isaac's powerful performances and the filmmakers' credentials are of the highest quality. Tristan Milani's cinematography captures a sense of place and time while the music from Marcello De Francisci and Lisa Gerrard evokes emotive imagery.
The difficulty for the filmmakers to recount the horrors of the story in order for events to be understood and an emotional journey partaken is a monumental one, and this is where the film struggles in part. Instead of being transported unequivocally and experiencing the response we should (and one that the story deserves), there are issues about perspective and jumps in time that jar. Nonetheless, the power of Balibo's story is considerable and the issues raised significant.
Director Robert Connolly and his co-script writer David Williamson have chosen is to tell the story from the point of view of an Indonesian woman who recalls the events as an eight year old girl. This suggests everything we see is witnessed by her, which is not the case as the film ambitiously intercuts the two main strands of the story, including documentary-like flashbacks that show what horrors took place with the missing journalists. The pieces of the puzzle are gradually put together. The backdrop is the 1975 invasion of East Timor by Indonesia and the massacre that even today, the Indonesian and Australian Governments deny.
LaPaglia plays Roger East, the experienced war journalist who makes a habit of defending the defenceless, and who follows the steps of the missing Australian journalists. Most effective is the storyline concerning José Ramos-Horta (Isaac is superb), who recruits East to head up his country's News Agency; it is their relationship that is at the film's heart. Ramos-Horta expresses his passion for his country; beyond the film's narrative (he is now the elected President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste), he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 after representing his country in exile for 24 years.
Robert Connolly's film, with its scenes of graphic violence, tells a devastating story that disturbs profoundly. It is a revisiting of an ugly moment in time that should be remembered.
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CAST: Anthony LaPaglia, Nathan Phillips, Oscar Isaac, Gyton Grantley, Tom Wright, Damon Gameau, Paul Sonkkila, Mark Leonard Winter, Mark Winter
PRODUCER: John Maynard
DIRECTOR: Robert Connolly
SCRIPT: Robert Connolly, David Williamson, (book Cover Up by Jill Jolliffe)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tristan Milani
EDITOR: Nick Meyers
MUSIC: Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrard
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Robert Cousins
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Footprint Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 13, 2009