Subject: Watching Balibo in Jakarta

also Robert Connolly : a story that needs to be told

Watching Balibo in Jakarta

Packed screenings of the controversial film about the deaths of five Australian journalists in East Timor continue, despite an official ban

Quinton Temby

Is it more exciting to watch Robert Connolly’s feature film on the Balibo Five at a clandestine screening in Jakarta, at which people joke that the military is coming and commentators give defiant statements to the waiting national media? Of course it is. The ban by the Film Censorship Board on 1 December ­ which transpired just moments before Balibo was to be shown at a meeting of the Jakarta Foreign Correspondent’s Club ­ has prevented the film from running at this year’s Jakarta International Film Festival. But Balibo is much bigger now: it’s mainstream news, it’s a cult film in NGO circles, it’s a debate.

Balibo is also a fine film. Its writers ­ Robert Connolly and acclaimed dramatist David Williamson ­ deftly chose to the tell the story through the journey of a sixth Australian journalist, Roger East, who went to East Timor on the eve of the Indonesian invasion in 1975 to find out what had happened to his fellow newsmen. A hulking and sweat-glazed Anthony LaPaglia (star of the US series Without a Trace) plays this role with measured intensity, taking us from the languor and beer of Darwin to Dili and on to the ghostly border town of Balibo. Meanwhile, the tragedy of the three Channel Seven and two Channel Nine journalists unreels in the washed-out tones of the 1970s. The film’s greatest achievement is the authenticity with which it recreates the historical mood. The thrill and foreboding of pre-invasion East Timor is evoked beautifully.

East is guided on his search by future East Timorese president José Ramos-Horta, effortlessly acted by Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac. But the standout supporting performance is Damon Gameau as Channel Seven reporter Greg Shackleton. Gameau movingly brings back to life Shakleton’s wide-eyed bravery, and his youthful gravitas in that immortal piece to camera from ‘an unnamed village that we will remember forever in Portuguese Timor’.

The film is not flawless. There are missteps here and there where it slips into sentiment or sensation. Surely it was a mistake to portray the commander of the border invasion, Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, as present at Balibo to execute one of the journalists with his pistol. In reality he directed events from another town. This scene confuses a key historical point, adds little to the drama (for how many would know this is meant to be Kalbuadi, besides those who look it up only to discover an artistic liberty) and Kalbuadi comes off a mere mastermind’s caricature anyway.

But it is unfair to say that Balibo whitewashes history. Journalist John Pilger claims there has been a ‘travesty of omissions’ with David Williamson’s original screenplay being re-drafted to cover-up the complicity of the Australian and US governments. Indeed, the film almost exclusively follows the drama in East Timor, rather than the realpolitik in Jakarta, Canberra and Washington. But it makes pointed reference to Washington’s green light for the invasion and Canberra’s connivance. These western governments’ support for Indonesia and indifference to the fate of the journalists ­ and the East Timorese people ­ is depicted as the political context within which the events on the ground take place. To tell the story from the vantage of East Timor ­ to create a strong sense of place by filming at the actual sites of the events and drawing on East Timorese talent ­ rather than through the lens of international relations is the writers’ prerogative and a choice that makes this film memorable. After all, Balibo is historical fiction for the box office, not a documentary for classrooms.

It is a popular film, but one of integrity. While heavily fictionalised, it is faithful to the moral and political significance of the events of 1975. It shows how the Balibo Five died trying to expose Indonesia’s covert invasion, while allowing for the question of whether they took an unwarranted risk. It portrays the brutality of the Indonesian military, but not without justification or nuance: a violation is also committed by Fretilin soldiers against a suspected Indonesian spy. It finally acknowledges the personal sacrifice made by Roger East, but without romanticising his role. Importantly, the film reflects the 2007 finding of an Australian coroner ­ the first serious inquiry into the Balibo Five deaths ­ that the journalists were killed deliberately by Indonesian special forces to cover-up the invasion. All this is framed by the greater tragedy that befell the East Timorese.

In Jakarta the film continues to circulate in the semi-underground, while those who lined up to see it at the festival (where it stayed on the schedule) have been turned away. Those lucky enough to have caught an illicit screening are discussing which parts were ‘real’. The full spectrum of reactions has emerged, from its detractors in the military to its supporters in the press. Tempo magazine made Balibo its cover story after interviewing a witness, former special forces soldier Gatot Purwanto, who was in the audience at a screening. Gatot, while prevaricating on the issue of the intentionality of the killings, has nevertheless contributed important new testimony, confirming that the journalists died in a cover-up to prevent news of the Indonesian invasion escaping. Thus from the invasion to today, the cycle of cover-up leading to exposure leading to publicity repeats. Impunity may reign but the truth about Balibo still wants to be free.

Quinton Temby ( has reported from East Timor for ABC radio and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University.


Robert Connolly : a story that needs to be told

Agustina Wayansari , THE JAKARTA POST , MELBOURNE | Sun, 12/13/2009 1:55 PM | People

As a filmmaker, Robert Connolly is unusually political. And one thing that easily riles him is the unresolved case of the demise of five Australia-based journalists known as Balibo Five.

Connolly decided to channel his anger in a more useful way. He made a movie about the shady events surrounding the death of the five journalists. His intention was to open up new discussion about the issue. The film has been shown in festival circuit around the world.

The Indonesian government, predictably, banned the film from being screened in local theaters arguing that it incorrectly depicted the Indonesian security apparatus and had the potential to open old wounds.

Connolly said that by imposing the ban the Indonesians have missed their chance to learn about this aspect of their country's shady past.

"Both the Indonesian and Australian governments have been hiding the story for more than 30 years. I think it is a great opportunity for a film to reveal the truth about what happened," Connolly told The Jakarta Post in an interview at a small cafe in the ground floor of his Melbourne office.

Besides, audiences always like history as it is depicted in movies, said the 42 year-old filmmaker.

Connolly started the research seven years ago, interviewing family members of the Balibo Five, who covered the military operation unleashed by the Indonesian Military to occupy the small territory, which just been decolonized by the Portuguese government in 1975.

He also went back and forth to Timor Leste to talk with people in the recently independent country and gathered all evidence from ground zero.

At some point, the issue got under his skin.

"The more I did my research; I realized that I had come to the point where I decided I had to make this film. As an Australian I feel it is a terrible part of our history. As I developed the project, I became very affected by what happened there and how many people died *during the annexation*," he said, adding that the country lost around 200,000 people during the invasion in 1975.

Connolly said that as an Australian, he felt even more ashamed that now, Australia, as well as Indonesia, had economically benefited from the Timor Leste oil field.

Australians, he pointed out, owe a great deal to the East Timorese. During World War Two, at least 40,000 East Timorese died supporting Australian troops in their fight against the Japanese.

"They were offered money by the Japanese but they refused to betray Australians by taking the money," Connolly said.

As much as he liked the end result of Balibo, Connolly said Balibo was hard to shoot as he was entangled in financial problems at the beginning of the project.

Things began to shape up when he met actor Anthony LaPaglia who offered financial aid for the movie.

Anthony LaPaglia, a close friend of Connolly, is cast as Roger East - a central figure in the Balibo saga. Driven by his instinct, this senior journalist returned to East Timor to find what really happened to his fellow journalists who had gone missing while covering the Indonesian invasion.

The two worked together in a movie titled The Bank (2001) and LaPaglia will greatly assist Connolly next year when the film is released for the American market.

In spite of his reputation as a politically charged director, Connolly is not a well-known figure in Indonesia and he would have likely remained so had it not been for the ban from the Film Censorship Board (LSF). He had a strong expectation that the movie could be shown to the Indonesian audience.

He expressed his disappointment over the ban and hoped that the government would soon lift the ban so that the film could be freely shown in the country.

"After all, this movie is not an attack on Indonesia. It is also very critical about the Australian government and its involvement in the East Timor occupation by Indonesia," he said, adding that as the event happened 34 years ago during the Soeharto government, it should be seen as a remnant of the past.

Connolly believes that the present government is radically different from the New Order and that Indonesia has changed into a country in which freedom of expression is highly respected.

But Connolly also was very surprised and intrigued by the latest development in Indonesia.

The ban has created more demand for his movie and it has opened up a discussion about how to push the limits of freedom of expression. He found it very exciting, he said, showing what Twitter returned when he typed in the word "Balibo". He was amused that a great number of Indonesians were talking about it online.

With so many movie awards under his belt - his previous movie Romulus, My Father (2007) depicting the struggle of immigrants facing adversities in Australia after World War Two, won the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Award as best film - it is fair to say that Connolly already has sound judgment and what he is supposed to do with his film. He said that he never consulted any government officials, including those from Indonesia. He sought to retain independence.

"As I was working on the film, I was aware that some media releases said that the Indonesian government hoped to have its point of view. But I don't want this movie to show any government's point of view," he said.

"I want a movie that shows the truth. Once a government is involved, you are losing your independence," the soft-spoken filmmaker said.

He said that as a filmmaker it was important for him "not to feel that his movie had an answerable point of view of any government".

Once the movie was completed, the next step was how to bring the movie to the outside world.

Connolly has been busy promoting Balibo over the last 30 months, traveling from one festival to another. But it seems that hard work paid off, with the movie being a great success in Australia. The movie has also opened up public discussion about the complicity of the Australian government in the crimes against the East Timorese.

Surprisingly, soon after it was released at the Melbourne Film Festival last August, Balibo was invited to be screened in the Parliament House in Canberra.

"I still could not believe it as Balibo is a very sensitive issue to the Labor Party *which currently holds power*," he said.

The Labor Party was also in power when the Indonesian invasion of East Timor took place.

He is happy with the international recognition that the movie received around the festival circuit. The film was screened at Pusan Film Festival in Korea, which he attended about three months ago and the response was rapturous. It received a similar response in Toronto Film Festival and London Film Festival.

The only response that mattered to Connolly was one given by the East Timorese.

"People in Timor found the movie very moving, he said, adding he dubbed Balibo in the local language Tetun as he is aware that people in the newly independent country would have a hard time reading the dialogue from subtitles, given the low literacy rate.

"It is a pity that the only place it couldn't be screened is Indonesia."


Balibo (2009) : Writer, Director

Lucky Country (2009) : Executive Producer

Romulus, My Father 92007) : Producer, Assistant Director

Three Dollars (2005) : Screenplay

The Bank (2001) : Screenplay

The Monkey's Mask (2000) : Producer

The Boys (1998) : Producer

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