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Discerning truth in Balibo's fiction

Tim Kroenert |  20 August 2009

Balibo, Anthony La Paglia, Robert Connolly, Jill JolliffeRaimond Gaita, after viewing the film adaptation of his memoir, Romulus, My Father, told director Robert Connolly: 'There's not one event in this film that happened as it happened in my life. But there is not one event in this film that is untrue.'

That distinction, between 'fact' and 'truth', may seem amorphous. But consider the ways in which a film can place its viewer in the shoes — or behind the eyes — of its characters.

'One of my favourite films is The Killing Fields,' says Connolly. 'The truth of what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia is firmly planted in my mind because I walked through the Killing Fields in that fictional film. It documented the tragedy through fiction.'

'Cinema,' he adds, 'can take the audience somewhere and show them a tragedy in a way that creates an empathy in them, which is more powerful than just presenting a series of facts.'  

Connolly achieves something similar with his new film, Balibo. Set in East Timor, within that fragile window in 1975 between Portuguese decolonistion and invasion by Indonesia, Balibo recounts the murders of six Australian journalists and technicians by the Indonesian military.

The film, based on journalist Jill Jolliffe's 'definitive' account, cross-cuts between two timelines: the final days of the five young TV journalists and technicians who were killed at Balibo during the first moments of the invasion; and the fateful, fatal efforts by seasoned journalist Roger East to find out the truth of the plight of the Balibo Five.

They are redemptive character arcs, particularly for East (Anthony La Paglia) and Channel 7 news reporter Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau). All six set out with a degree of self-interest, but through their travels and their encounters with the East Timorese they are awakened to the injustices suffered within that nation.

'I was interested in exploring the ability of this country to compel people to tell its story,' says Connolly. 'It's hard not to start caring for what happened there. The journey from self-interest to compassion is at the heart of the film. It is just as relevant today. The film throws that challenge down.' 

It has been widely reported that Connolly's script (written with David Williamson) fictionalises events and speculates on the dynamics between characters. Sure — some license is necessary, even in a film that's 'Based on a true story'. That said, the 'centrepiece' scenes, the murders, were carefully reconstructed from historical evidence.

'I was most keen that the murders of the Balibo Five were as documented by the coroner, and the murder of Roger East [later in Dili] was as documented by the witness statements we have, so that those two events stood in the face of history's denial of them.'

Connolly has been criticised for not paying greater attention to Australian and US political machinations that played an active role in East Timor's continued oppression. In fact he was deliberately selective about the point of view; he 'wanted to tell of the human cost, from the point of view of the East Timorese'.

'The political ambition is secondary to a bigger, humanist ambition to document something in a way that asks questions more broadly of the human experience, and how we commit crimes like this against each other.

'In the massacre at the end, I wanted music that speaks of the human condition, and says to the audience, "You're not being let off the hook. Don't look at this and think this is just something that happened 34 years ago and we weren't there."'

One of the film's strengths is its structure. It is bookended by scenes set in 1999, following Indonesia's relinquishment of power, that depict an interview between an Australian soldier and an East Timorese woman with a childhood connection to Roger East.

It's a reminder: the film may focus on the fates of Australian journalists, but the story is East Timor's, and the greater injustices are ultimately theirs.

These scenes also form part of a thematic thread relating to the national self-interest of the Australian government, media and community. 'Australia wouldn't care as much for East Timor if it wasn't for the deaths of those five white Australian men.'

Connolly flags this tension with a scene in which East physically fights a young Jose Ramos Horta (Oscar Isaac) when arguing over this very point. More than just a finger pointed at every white Australian viewer, the scene is also a subtle self-disclosure on Connolly's own behalf.

'A lot of people asked, "How can you make a film about five white guys, in the face of the hundreds of thousands of Timorese that died?" I really grappled with that, and wanted to confront it within the film.'

(Incidentally, after viewing the film the real Ramos Horta endorsed this fictional scene. 'He said, "I did have fights with East, although they didn't happen like that ... I could have had that fight with a dozen journalists."')

Balibo has achieved accolades from critics and audiences alike. At the Brisbane International Film Festival, it was recognised by both the Interfaith Jury and the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Jury, and received the Audience Prize.

This speaks to its power both as an excellent and engaging political thriller, and also as a strong and timely advocacy film that, at the very least, has got people thinking, feeling and talking about the past and present struggles of the East Timorese.

'The triumph for me is talking to people who experience such a profound sense of either grief or guilt or tragedy over what happened,' says Connolly. 'A straightforward documentary exploration might not have achieved that.'

Balibo official site

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.



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Submitted comments

I would be interested to know if anyone has spoken to Shirley Shackleton, Greg's widow, to get her opinion of the movie.

Pauline Gilmore 20 August 2009

This film seems to be another of the tear jerkers that we get from Hollywood history.

Ray O'Donoghue 20 August 2009

It's not Hollywood history, Ray. If it were, then the Balibo Five would have been Americans.

Ken Westmoreland 20 August 2009

Shirley Shackleton has reviewed the film here

Gemma 20 August 2009

Thanks for giving away what Beautiful Kate is about!!!

Martine Valentine 20 August 2009

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