Balibo


Directed by: Robert Connolly
Written by:Robert Connolly, David Williamson
Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac, Nathan Phillips, Damon Gameau, Gyton Grantley, Tom Wright
Released: August 13, 2009
Grade: A-

You only have to follow the news on a regular basis to realise that there are millions of interesting stories on this planet.  A select few are made into movies and that’s one of the reason I spend so much time at my local cinemas.  I learn about people and events that I knew nothing about previously.

Balibo is a perfect example.  Some will know this tale but I wasn’t alive when the actual events took place in 1975.  It was in that year when East Timor declared its independence from Portugal, who had colonised the area 400 years earlier.  Within days of having their independence, neighbouring Indonesia invaded.  They wanted the land and its valuable resources for their own people.

A team of five journalists from Channel Seven and Channel Nine had flown to the capital city of Dili to cover the story.  They realised fairly quickly that a major atrocity was about occur.  Their aim was to take footage of the Indonesian militia in action and broadcast it back home.  The world was largely oblivious to what was going on in East Timor but hopefully this would make them stand up and take notice.

As the Indonesian invasion commenced, these five men went missing in near the village of Balibo.  Despite what you may think, very little was said about their disappearance in the Australian media.  There’s a strong implication in Robert Connolly’s film that the fate of these journalists was a covered up by the Australian Government.  Why?  Because Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser supported Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and such news would not be good publicity.

There are two stories being told concurrently during Balibo.  I’ve mentioned the first but the more prominent story is that of a retired journalist named Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia).  On an invitation from East Timor’s Foreign Minister (Isaac), he travelled to Dili to head up their media centre.  On arrival, East was fixated by the disappearance of the “Balibo Five”.  He knew that he had to find out what happened… because no one else would.

Based on the non-fiction book by Jill Joliffe, Robert Connolly (The Bank) has brought this story to the screen.  I agree that it needed to be told.  Much of it was shot in East Timor and there are some truly gripping sequences.   A pudgy looking Anthony LaPaglia (Lantana) gives a terrific performance.  You can see a noticeable transformation in his character as he realises the importance of his role in East Timor.

My biggest concern with the movie is that it leaves questions unanswered.  I wanted to know more about the government’s stance on East Timor.  I wanted to know more about the journalists themselves.  The internet has helped with most of the answers but I’d have preferred to see them covered off in the film.

Balibo premiered at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival and in attendance was Jose Ramos Horta, the current President of East Timor.  Horta has a strong connection with this story – because he was a part of it.  I wish I could have been at that screening to hear his thoughts on the film and his own country today.

It takes a little while to get rolling but Balibo builds to a powerful finale that will leave the audience in a hushed state on leaving the cinema.