Balibo: a film every journalism student should see

15 August 2009

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It’s rare for me to want to sit in silence as the credits roll at the end of a film. 

It’s also rare for an Australian film to capture the hearts and conscience of an entire audience.

But such is the power of Balibo, the extraordinary Australian-made film about Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, where five Australian journalists – known as the Balibo Five – were killed. 

Up until two years ago, the official account by the Indonesians, which was accepted by the Australian government, was that the five journalists – three from Channel 7 and two from Channel 9 – died in crossfire as Indonesian soldiers fought East Timorese rebels. 

But in 2007, an Australian coroner in New South Wales found the journalists were killed as they tried to surrender to Indonesian troops

“This is the story that will never die,” said Jill Jolliffe, the author of the book Cover Up: The Story of the Balibo Five, which was the book on which the film was based. A new edition of the book – now called Balibo – has been published to coincide with the release of the movie.

The opening night of Balibo at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova was followed by a Q&A session of the cast and the director, moderated by La Trobe University’s Lawrie Zion.

“The reason the story is still alive today is because the Australian journalist stood by their colleagues and they have kept the story alive,” said Jolliffe.

“It’s the story that has always been given a run in the newspapers because journalists want to protect their own.”

The film depicts the hunger the Balibo Five have for the truth.  It portrays their courage and the creed which keeps them searching for more; desperate to show the story of the East Timorese facing invasion from a powerful enemy.

Interestingly, the film does not present the Australian Government’s perspective and whether it had any knowledge of what was happening on the island.

Film director and co-writer Robert Connolly says he initially portrayed the events which were unfolding in Canberra during the Indonesian invasion.

After flying to East Timor however, he wasn’t so sure.

“One of the trips to East Timor [I visited] the archives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission interviews. And a point-of-view shift happened for me,” Connolly said.

“The story of us pursuing 34 years later in detail what was going on in Canberra became less relevant to me in my intention to tell the story of what happened in East Timor to the Timorese.”

In Connolly’s mind, there was a broader picture which had to be painted.

“How do you put in the context of 183,000 Timorese that died….the death of these men?”

On the opening night of Balibo, the crowd was intrigued to hear about what the Australian Government knew about the invasion, as well about what they knew about the fate of the five journalists.

“I don’t think for a moment that it’s true that they didn’t know,” Jolliffe said.  “There is enormous discrepancy between the official version and what was really known.”

 “They certainly knew (about the invasion).  Cables released by DFAT in 2000 demonstrated that (the embassy) was being briefed on the invasion and precise details of the invasion up until the eve of the attack (on the journalists),” she said. 

“Evidence was there from the very beginning and denied at the official level.   There was a massive operation of disinformation that was coming equally from Jakarta and Canberra to cover up that story.”

The five journalists who were killed at the hands of the Indonesians were Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie.

The story is told through the eyes of independent journalist Robert East, who flies to Timor to search for the journalists.

East was shot dead in Dili a day after the Indonesian troops invaded East Timor.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the piece-to-camera by Greg Shackleton in front of a hut in a native village.

Shackleton recaps the conversations the journalists had with locals the evening before.

“Why, they ask, are the Australians not helping us, when the Japanese invaded us, they did help us?  Who, they ask, will pay for the terrible damage to our homes?  The emotion here last night was so strong, that we, all three of us, felt that we could reach in to the warm night and touch it.”

Shackleton is moved to tears at the end of the piece. 

And so were members of the audience watching Damon Gameau’s extraordinary performance of him in the film.

Gameau says it wasn’t difficult feeling the passion that Shackleton did in 1975. 

“One of the best resource materials was a diary that Greg had kept the whole time, and for all his pieces to camera he’d kept various notes about the people he’d met along the way and his experiences,” Gameau said.

“He didn’t write anything about that piece.  So, I think he literally just sat down and said it off the top of his head.”

 “You could just tell that by that point, he got quite passionate for the East Timorese people.  We kind of felt the same way, we shot that three weeks in to the shoot, and by then I certainly knew what he was talking about.” 

Gameau said he consulted with Shirley Shackleton, the widow of Greg, to make sure his portrayal  of the late journalist was accurate.

“Right from the outset she said to me, make him a human being, I don’t want you to glorify him, I don’t want you to sentimentalise him,” said Gameau.

In many respects, that description can sum up the mood of the entire film.  

Dramatic, thought-provoking and enraging, it’s a must-see for anyone interested in a story so close to home that, for so long, we’ve only known a little about. 

Erdem Koc is the editor of upstart.

Balibo is screening nationally. Details of Melbourne screening times can be found here.