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The filmmakers of Balibo exhume the killing of unarmed young Australian journalists in the 1975 invasion of East Timor by Indonesian forces, a reminder that evil will flourish when good men and women do nothing. Andrew L. Urban reports.

John Maynard will only say “it’s complicated” about the reactions of the families of the journalists killed at Balibo in 1975, when they were shown the film he produced recreating the events. He says there were various reactions, as we would expect. He respects their privacy, even though the events have been public knowledge for decades. But never like this. Never so shockingly ‘real’ on the big screen and in so much detail – and with such clear context. It’s disturbing, cathartic, agonising and too close for comfort – and not just for the families.

"a politically charged work"

The film brings together the human, professional and political elements of the story in one powerful stream. It’s a politically charged work that has the potential to rip off the scab that has been woven over the incident by the Governments of Indonesia and also Australia. Maynard accuses all Australians, himself included, of not having done or said more to express our outrage at Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and subsequent actions.

Maynard and his business partner the film’s director Robert Connolly took extraordinary measures to ensure the film portrays as accurately and truthfully as possible the events of its ghastly story. 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.

“The fate of the journalists as depicted in the film,” says Connolly, “draws much from the excellent work of the NSW Coroner Dorelle Pinch, whose findings in 2008 confirmed that the journalists were murdered. The film’s depiction of their deaths stands in the face of the Australian and Indonesian Governments’ continued denial of the murders.” Pinch attended the special preview of Balibo at Dendy Opera Quays (August 7, 2009) which was followed by a Q&A with Connolly, LaPaglia and Gameau, moderated by Urban Cinefile’s Andrew L. Urban. Pinch told Urban the film accurately captured all the details that went into her report and praised the film’s achievements.

Connolly says Balibo has had to transcend its historical origins to not only avoid the trap of becoming merely a polemic, “but to engage an audience who knows nothing of the events. Roger East’s investigation of the disappearance of the journalists and his subsequent personal journey from a sceptic to a renewed idealist is told through his friendship with José Ramos-Horta. The 25 year old Horta, who will go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and lead his country to freedom, lures Roger East to East Timor to investigate the disappearance of the Balibo Five and to set up an independent press agency to cover events in the country.

"to seek the truth"

“The film has drawn on the tradition of films that include dramatic recreations used by directors including Costa Gavras, Pontecorvo and more recently Michael Winterbottom. Set within a thriller structure, it is also a traditional buddy story where two conflicting characters with different aims are forced to support each other on a journey to discover the fate of the Balibo Five. Horta, a passionate idealist with a vision for an independent East Timor, and East, a man driven by the need to seek the truth of the Balibo Five, are polarised by their respective motivations.”

The issue of whether the film will be depicted as fiction versus truth is “always one that you grapple with as a feature filmmaker, not a documentary maker,” says Connolly. “You dramatise events with any film to try and make the film as a piece of cinema that works in a compelling way for an audience. There were a couple of fundamental things that we decided not to fictionalise though, which were the executions of the Balibo Five and the Dili massacre in December 1975 on the wharf. We were lucky that we had documents available to us, to help us re-create those events.”

Consulting historian on the film, Dr Clinton Fernandes (UNSW & Australian Defence Force academy) says Connolly was committed to historical accuracy. He curates a sub-website from the film’s official site exploring the events and providing some factual commentary. It draws on the important work of East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. The Commission, known by its Portuguese initials C.A.V.R. (A Comissao de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliaçao) was established as an independent statutory authority in July 2001 by the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor. It was mandated to inquire into human rights abuses committed by all sides between April 1974 and October 1999. Its official report, Chega! (Portuguese for 'enough'), was written by national and international staff working under the direction and supervision of the CAVR's seven East Timorese commissioners.

Published August 13, 2009

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Damon Gameau as Grant Shackleton


Anthony LaPaglia as Roger East

Oscar Isaac as José Ramos-Horta

On August 30, 2009, the 10th anniversary of the referendum in which East Timor chose independence (over Special Autonomy within Indonesia) the producers will stage a large outdoor public screening of Balibo (dubbed into Tetum with a special grant from Screen Australia) will be screened in Dili. This will be followed by a tour of several regional centres using an inflatable screen.

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