Subject: The Australian: Balibo Film Gives Voice To Timor Victim

The Australian

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Film gives voice to Timor victim

Natasha Robinson

He was shot in Dili just months after the Balibo Five, but Roger East's story has never really been told, writes Natasha Robinson

A FEW grainy photographs, a couple of dog-eared letters home, and the contradictory memories of friends. For actor Anthony LaPaglia, piecing together the life of executed Australian journalist Roger East has not been an easy task.

A little-known figure in history despite the highly publicised fate of the five fellow reporters also murdered in East Timor in 1975, East has been described as the ``forgotten man'' of the Balibo saga.

``The more research you do, the more mystifying it is as to why more hasn't been done over the years to really get to the bottom of not only just what happened, but also where the remains are, so there can be some kind of closure,'' LaPaglia says.

The story of the Balibo Five is well documented. Five young newsmen travel to Timor two months before Indonesia's invasion in December 1975. The journalists are shot during a military incursion in Balibo by Indonesian troops, who ignore a scrawled painting of the Australian flag on the wall of a house. Indonesia sends what may or may not be human remains in a small box to Australian foreign affairs officials.

After their deaths, East, then working as a public relations officer in Darwin with the government's Cyclone Tracy reconstruction commission, travels to Timor to investigate. At the same time, he hatches plans with the young Fretilin rebel and future East Timorese president Jose Ramos Horta to set up a Timorese news service.

Less than two months later, on December 8, East is seen being dragged, hands bound, across Dili's main square. An Australian inquiry 20 years later concludes he was shot at Dili's wharf.

East's news reports of the Indonesian invasion and massacres never reach the outside world. He files an incomplete transmission for the wire service Reuters. No record of the story remains.

While outrage about the killings of the Balibo Five has continued for decades, East's brutal killing quietly faded from view. His family does not want headlines but peace for his restless soul.

``My family didn't press for an inquiry,'' says Glenise Bowie, East's 83-year-old sister, who lives in Sydney.

``They didn't want anyone to be tried or judged. I'm sure that Roger would not have wanted revenge either.''

Holding an unlit cigarette, LaPaglia sits on a Darwin balcony and tells how he has tried to understand the journalist who recorded others' stories but left only scattered records of his own. He plays the role of East in Balibo, which began filming in Darwin two weeks ago and will also be shot in East Timor.

``When I first started researching, I was in the States, so I was just using the internet, and there was nothing I could find on him,'' LaPaglia says.

``And then I started getting a few more contacts, a few more people, and bit by bit, everything started coming in. All of a sudden people started coming out of the woodwork who knew him.''

Darwin is like that. Ever ready with a sweaty tropical embrace for those coming from the big city south, or north from Asia, the town has not forgotten East, its brief, bluff resident.

East became a newspaper man after exiting the navy with jangled nerves, craving more out of life. Trained at Dubbo's daily newspaper in central NSW, East worked in local newspapers in Australia.

As a freelancer, he travelled the world, from Hong Kong to the Isle of Man, from Franco's Spain to gloomy Liverpool in England. With many more foreign assignments in between, East put down few roots in a life spent in continual travel. ``A tube of toothpaste and a skipping rope, that's what he used to say,'' Bowie says.

In February 1975, then prime minister Gough Whitlam created the Darwin Reconstruction Commission and East was recruited as its press officer.

For Balibo director Robert Connolly and producer John Maynard -- whose Arenafilm has produced a swag of Australian stories often based on real life, including Romulus, My Father and The Boys -- re-creating the Cyclone Tracy-razed Darwin of 1975 proved a challenge. Corrugated iron is hard to find these days; modern apartments dot the skyline. Even the simplest set prop has been difficult to track down.

Last month, Darwin author Andrew McMillan -- guardian of the clapped-out typewriters that knock out rhythms in the Darwin press corp's band, the Fourth Estate -- got a knock on the door from a Balibo assistant. McMillan's Shepherd Street bunker was the only joint in town known to contain a collection of typewriters. He handed them over on loan.

East, an experienced reporter who grew up on the rural fringes of Sydney, was born on February 5, 1923, into a working-class family from Merrylands. His mother's death, when East was just two, shattered the family. His father sent the four East children -- three boys and a girl -- to live with their aunt in a small village near the New England town of Inverell.

``We don't know how our mother died,'' Bowie says. ``If there was ever any talk of it, it was whispered.''

Despite his abandonment, East had fond memories of his father and would often regale his mates with stories of how the old man was a ``wobbly'', a member of the radical organisation called the International Workers of the World, who were far left but rejected established political parties.

Jill Jolliffe, author of Cover Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, says East's politics were shaped by his family.

``He got into trouble for his left-wing politics and was often called a communist, which I don't think he denied,'' Jolliffe says. ``But I don't think he was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.''

Jolliffe has worked with Connolly and playwright David Williamson on the film's screenplay. The author has also been in touch with LaPaglia as he worked to build the character of East. ``As far as I can see, Rob Connolly has a gift for getting actors to identify very strongly with the characters and let it come from within them,'' Jolliffe says. ``He tries to get the actors to live their characters in preparing themselves.

``In this case, he's got together the actors of the young men playing the Balibo Five. There's this fantastic bonding process that seems to have gone on with the families.''

From Jolliffe, LaPaglia gleaned some knowledge of what took place in the week leading up to East's murder. Jolliffe, East and Michael Richardson were the only three journalists in Timor when Fretilin declared unilateral independence on November 28, 1975.

``I distinctly remember Roger coming into the dining room of the Hotel Turismo at one breakfast time and saying, `There's troops gathering in the town square,''' Jolliffe says.

``We all grabbed our notebooks and walked down there. There were troops gathering, more and more, until someone came with a big smile and said, `Hey, we're going to declare independence.'''

On December 2, the journalists received a message from Australia's foreign affairs department via the International Red Cross. Indonesia was about to invade Timor, the message said, and Australian citizens should evacuate Dili while they still could. Jolliffe and Richardson decided to go. East stayed.

``We only had several hours to decide,'' Jolliffe says.

``It was a very hard decision indeed.''

During their last conversation with East, Jolliffe and Richardson urged him to get out of Dili and head to the mountains. ``And unfortunately he didn't get to the mountains,'' Jolliffe says.

It was Jolliffe who travelled to Sydney to tell Bowie the painful truth. ``Jill came out and sat on my lounge and she said: `Roger is dead','' Bowie says. ``That was the first time I had real tears. And I knew that she knew (what had happened). She knew exactly.''

For Bowie, who still goes to the movies even though her old eyes can barely see what is on the screen, the film will finally bring public recognition for a brother who, despite the risks of his profession, never imagined he would meet such a brutal fate.

``We don't feel any different,'' Bowie says. ``We'll always feel the same big, sad hurt. It was just a senseless killing.''

LaPaglia -- who with Connolly and Maynard has pushed for more than five years for the film to be made -- says it was the core group of Australian writers, activists and surviving relatives who have kept the Balibo story alive. ``I asked them all the same question: Why? Why would you devote your life to this?'' he says.

``There's an old saying: `There's a special place in hell for those who witness atrocities and do nothing about it.' And I don't think they want to go there.''

Balibo is due for release in Australian cinemas next year.

Back to July menu 

World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu