CINEMA: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Award-winning film about slain journalists - Balibo (rated M)
, October 3, 2009
is a dramatisation of the deaths of six journalists in East Timor in 1975. Five of the six died at Balibo, a small village about 8 km from the Indonesian border, during an Indonesian incursion into East Timor in mid-October 1975. They are known as the "Balibo Five" (see also the editorial column in this issue of News Weekly
|Oscar Isaac as José Ramos Horta (left),|
with Anthony LaPaglia as Roger East.
The other journalist, Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia), who is the hero of the film, was executed by Indonesian troops during their invasion of Dili in December 1975.
The film is not a documentary, although many of the details showing the fate of how the journalists died are accurate. However, Balibo
does not explain why a Portuguese colonial backwater in 1975 became an international issue during that year, and why it has remained an important issue for the past 34 years.
The personalisation of the story around a handful of journalists obscures the international forces at work in 1975, and an explanation of the betrayal of the Timorese people by the four countries which might have averted the calamity - Portugal, Indonesia, Australia and the United States.
All this is curious, as the film is based on the book Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five
(2001) by journalist and long-time Fretilin supporter, Jill Jolliffe. As a person who was in East Timor in 1975, who has written books on East Timor's political history and for many years reported on Fretilin's struggle to win international recognition, Ms Jolliffe is one of the best informed Australians on the subject of East Timor.
The film develops the characters of only two people: the hard-drinking, cynical, Darwin-based journalist Roger East, who travelled to East Timor late in 1975, and the bearded Fretilin activist and self-styled Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Fretilin government, José Ramos Horta (played by Oscar Isaac), who wears jungle-green military fatigues everywhere and looks like a Castroite from the 1950s.
Ramos Horta is now the President of East Timor, and recently awarded Balibo's
director Robert Connolly and producer John Maynard the Presidential Medal of Merit for the film.
The five journalists killed in Balibo are portrayed as well-meaning but naïve Australians (actually, only two were Australians, while two were British and one was a New Zealander). In pursuit of TV footage showing Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, they ignored repeated warnings by fellow journalists, by José Ramos Horta, and even by the local Fretilin commander to leave the village of Balibo when it came under attack from Indonesian forces.
They knew nothing of East Timor's history, languages and culture; and in the one episode in the film in which they interact with ordinary Timorese people, they show they know nothing about the geopolitical realities which confronted East Timor at the time.
They believed that their international status would protect them, but were killed by Indonesian troops who wanted to leave no eyewitnesses to their military incursion into East Timor.Balibo
tantalisingly does not explain why Roger East decided to go to East Timor in the first place, nor why he decided to stay in Dili, capital of East Timor, shortly before the Indonesian invasion, after José Ramos Horta offered him a place on the last flight out. By this time, East, unlike the Balibo Five, knew that the Indonesian forces would not respect the status of international journalists.
When East went to East Timor in early November 1975, the Balibo Five had already been killed, and their deaths had been widely reported in the Australian, Timorese and Indonesian media. What was not known at the time was how they died.
In the film, scenes of the Balibo Five as they travel around East Timor before their deaths are interspersed with scenes of Roger East in East Timor, asking whether anyone had seen the "missing journalists". The time sequencing in the film is extremely confusing.
One poignant scene in the film is indelibly printed on my mind. In it, José Ramos Horta challenges Roger East's obsession with finding out what happened to the Balibo Five, when many more East Timorese people were suffering and dying. Roger East points out that the Australian media could not care whether thousands of Timorese were being killed - but would be shocked by the murder of five Australian journalists.Balibo
shows the murder of the journalists and, in chilling detail, a massacre of people in Dili after the Indonesian invasion. Many people will be affronted by the violence.
This film, made on location in East Timor, shows the wild beauty of the country's landscape, and the extreme poverty of many of its people. It does not convey, however, the richness of the people's spirit, their courage and their ultimate triumph.