How Balibo distorts history

Balibo, Anthony LaPaglia and Oscar Isaac, as Roger East and Jose Ramos HortaWhen I first heard that a film was being made about the murder of Australian journalists in East Timor in late 1975, I immediately thought of the film about the Cuban missile crisis, Thirteen Days. Directed by Australian Roger Donaldson, the film recreates actual meetings held during the crisis and produces a thriller.

The new film about the deaths of five journalists in Balibo in October 1975, followed by a sixth in December, could also have drawn on the mountain of material now available that reveals the diplomatic dirty tricks — and Australian and American complicity — in the invasion of East Timor and subsequent death toll of 183,000.

Instead, the first feature length film dealing with  Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, and the deaths of these journalists, has missed an opportunity to inform the audience and thrill them at the same time.

As much as two thirds of the 111 minutes portrayed in Robert Connolly's film, Balibo, is fictionalised. Astute friends who have seen the film believed that the all of the events portrayed were real. After all, the promotional blurb says 'Based on a true story'. Even the experienced film reviewer Paul Byrnes fell for it, claiming the film was 'long on factual fidelity, short on movie hyperbole'.

For the record, here's a list of the following events in the film that are fiction:

  • The journalist Roger East was never cajoled out of his public service job by the young Fretilin foreign spokesman Jose Ramos Horta to work in East Timor, and nor did Ramos-Horta hand him an AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only) dossier on the Balibo Five
  • East and Ramos-Horta never trekked on foot to Balibo, and nor were they attacked by a US helicopter along the way.
  • The Indonesians didn't attack up the hill in front of the Balibo fort, but from around the back of the village.
  • The senior commander of the Balibo operation, Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, didn't put a pistol to the head of the journalist Brian Peters and shoot him dead. He was 10 km away at the time.
  • East wasn't captured trying to send his last report from Dili's Marconi radio office.
  • And it's unlikely that General Benny Murdani, the Indonesian army intelligence chief, was observing the executions of East and Timorese people on the Dili wharf on 8 December, dressed in a white safari suit, though he did parachute into Dili some time that day.


For part of this list I'm indebted to the journalist Hamish McDonald, whose book Death in Balibo, co-authored with ANU academic Desmond Ball, has a swag of detailed material that would have made Balibo a much better film had it been included.

However where the film really deviates from reality is that it only portrays the Indonesians as the villains. True, they did the actual killing, but others were complicit as well.

Balibo goes to extraordinary lengths to shock viewers with Indonesian brutality in East Timor in late 1975. The consulting historian Clinton Fernandes researched the type of pistol put to the head of journalist Brian Peters, and the type of civilian dress worn at the time by the Indonesian officers.

At the same time the film omits the Australians and Americans who sanctioned the unlawful invasion by Indonesia. This is a serious omission that undermines Balibo as a historical work.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who tacitly endorsed the invasion in meetings with President Soeharto, gets a  mention but is not portrayed. Richard Woolcott, the Jakarta ambassador who was rooting for an Indonesian takeover, is not mentioned. Nor are the Australian foreign affairs officials who routinely received intercepts on civilian massacres in East Timor.

The US government was deeply complicit in the unlawful invasion. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sanctioned the full-scale invasion in a meeting in Jakarta with Indonesia's President Soeharto in December 1975. Then the US supplied aircraft and arms to eliminate the resistance in the Timorese mountains.

While the film mentions the meeting, Connolly and his leading man Anthony LaPaglia have not extended their justice demands to Kissinger, a Nobel laureate who is still alive. Presumably this wouldn't bode well for potential US distribution. Exposing Whitlam would not go down well with the prime market for the film in Australia, the Labor-voting inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

It is impossible to imagine that an invasion of any country would not result in civilian deaths, in cold blood or otherwise, yet the westerners who sanctioned it are let off the hook.

Connolly and his co-writer David Williamson have mysteriously ignored the incriminating declassified cables, the most infamous being Richard Woolcott's August 1975 missive which argued that Australia would get a bigger share of Timor Sea oil if Indonesia controlled the territory.

In the same cable he took the audacious step of suggesting that a minister could answer a question in Parliament or at a press conference explaining the need for the unlawful use of force in Timor from Indonesia's viewpoint. While planting the seed, he covered his backside by recommending that the strategy not be used.

Woolcott went on to become head of Australia's foreign affairs department, was awarded the nation's highest civilian honour and more recently has been given a new lease of life as a special envoy on Asian affairs for the Rudd Government.

Woolcott's second-in-command in the Jakarta embassy, Allan Taylor, who was briefed extensively on Indonesia's invasion plans in late 1975, went on to have a stellar diplomatic career culminating in his appointment as head of Australia's spy agency, ASIS.

Connolly, LaPaglia and the film's website have called for the Indonesian military to be tried for war crimes. Indeed they should, but they have not extended their justice demands to the westerners who are also complicit.

By contrast, Timorese leaders like Xanana Gusmao say it is almost impossible to determine where the pursuit of justice ends. Does it simply end with those who actually did the killing?

Connolly notes in a recent article that one result of the film is that Woolcott has outed himself by making ludicrous comments about the deaths being the fault of the media companies. Well, at least Woolcott outed himself, because the film certainly didn't.

There are many more villains in East Timor's tragic history than the Indonesians alone.

Balibo: The Film vs Reality

Paul Cleary, a former adviser to the East Timor government, is a journalist and author of Shakedown: Australia's Grab for Timor Oil. A second non-fiction work on East Timor is forthcoming.

Topic tags: paul cleary, balibo, robert connolly, Richard Woolcott, henry kissinger, gerald ford, gough whitlam



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Existing comments

maybe indonesian army contribution to what happened in east timor, is only miniscule, compared to australian interference currently, in afghanistan and iraq
cronos | 20 August 2009

Since when have films and historical accuracy gone hand in hand? I highly recommend a book called Past Imperfect - History according to the movies. It shows how every director is pushing a particular ideological barrow, or sacrificing truth for entertainment. If you want to search for the truth, watch a documentary or read books and articles.
Patrick James | 20 August 2009

I saw Balibo - very difficult to watch - reading, yes the background was not mentioned. The film was death of the journalists all exposure comment because "Australians". Living in Darwin before Tracey with Timorese neighbours friends, the fate of the timorese was what brought an emotional response from me
margaret o'reilly | 20 August 2009

This is mostly fair comment and useful information. However, Whitlam always emphasised to Soeharto, as late as the Cairns meeting in October 1975, that although Australia favoured integration - the territory being considered too small to be viable on its own - the East Timorese people must agree in a transparent way to integration. I have seen reliable documents that support his denial of complicity.

The greatest omission of the film, however, is the failure to note that a civil war was being waged in East Timor at the time between those who wanted independence (Fretilin), those who wanted a negotiated independence with Portuguese help (UDT), and those who favoured integration with Indonesia (the smallest group). With Fretilin gaining the upper hand in this struggle the pro-Indonesian group retreated to the border with West Timor and asked for Indonesian help. The attackers at Balibo were actually largely East Timorese, with some Indonesian advisers.

This is not to excuse the Indonesians, who were intervening in the affairs of a neighbouring country, but to say that, rather than an invasion (which did not come until the parachute landings in Dili), the Balibo incident was a mixed and confused - as well as tragic - affair.
Ivan Shearer | 20 August 2009

In 1974 Whitlam said "I am in favour of incorporation, but obeisance has to be made to self-determination. I want it incorporated, but I do not want this done in a way which will create argument in Australia, which would make people more critical of Indonesia."

The 'civil war' in East Timor, which only lasted a month, was the result of a coup attempt by UDT, which was told by Indonesia that it would not allow an independent East Timor under Fretilin control. Earlier, Jakarta had tried to use the pro-Indonesian Apodeti party as a vehicle for integration, as part of Operasi Komodo, but when it proved unpopular, it encouraged UDT to break its coalition with Fretilin.

When UDT supporters retreated across the border, they were required to sign a petition calling for integration with Indonesia.

It is true that officials in Canberra and Washington (and, indeed, Lisbon) have a lot to answer for regarding East Timor in 1975, but it was Jakarta that invaded the territory, and its Asian neighbours that were silent. What if it had been the anti-Western Sukarno regime who had invaded instead of the pro-Western Suharto? Would Indonesia have been any less guilty?
Ken Westmoreland | 20 August 2009

What appears to be continually overlooked is the strong strategic interest of the USA in the deep water Wetar trench that runs alongside Timor. US nuclear subs transiting between the Indian and Pacific Oceans used the deep water for safe passage and the USA simply could not afford to let any anti-USA forces exercise control over it.
With regards to the killings at Balibo, I believe the reasons lay with events at Batugede some days earlier. The Indonesians as they attempted to cross the border at Batugede were ambushed by Fretilin forces and were supposed to have suffered heavy casualties in the battle to control the town. The Indonesians believed that Fretilin had received their intelligence via Radio Australia who were broadcasting the reports sent back by the ABC journalists who had been witnessing the Indonesian activity in preparation for the incursion into East Timor.

If the intent of the Indonesians was to prevent news of their crossing into East Timor reaching the outside world, as is generally claimed, then why weren't the Portuguese journalists who had also been filming the Indonesian buildup also targeted?

Not only is there distortion, but a great deal of very relevant information has been ignored, but that has been par for the course ever since the events took place.
johnd | 20 August 2009

It's odd that Jose Ramos Horta and Greg Shackleton's widow have both praised the film. Why is it good enough for them, but not for Paul Cleary?

Interesting to note that according to The Australian, Horta said that 'the torture and murder of at least one of the Balibo Five was in reality much more shocking than portrayed in the film'. This contradicts Cleary's statement that 'Balibo goes to extraordinary lengths to shock viewers with Indonesian brutality'.

The information Cleary has provided is useful and interesting, but I think he is too harsh on the film. I agree with what Robert Connolly has said elsewhere (so, too, do Horta and Ms Shackleton, apparently) that a film can be truthful without being 100 per cent historically accurate.

Surely no audience is so naive that they confuse 'Based on a true story' with 'This is absolutely 100 per cent historically accurate'?
Charles Boy | 20 August 2009

An interesting article - however,one very minor correction to the detail, just for fellow pedants. Benny Moedani did not parachute into Dili in either of the paradrop sorties on 7 December 1975. He arrived 'air-landed' - flown in by Major Djatmiko in a 'civil' Britten Norman Islander (BN-2A) that landed at Dili airport later on 7 December.

There are many photographs of Moerdani in his civilian cream-coloured safari suit and carrying a US M1 carbine. He was accompanied on his 'inspection' by Colonel Dading Kalbuadi and Colonel Soebijakto. Moerdani met with Arnaldo dos Reis Araujo - and returned to Kupang the same day.
Ernie Chamberlain | 20 August 2009

Whilst I respect Cleary's passion, I think his criticism is unfair. Balibo is not a documentary. It is not reasonable to demand of Connolly that he include some kind of analysis of the roles of Aus, USA, UK (and every other country said to have knowledge of Indonesia's intentions). Indonesia was the aggressor. The invasion was accompanied by an extraordinary amount of gratuitous violence. I see nothing wrong with Balibo's focus on Indonesia's actions. The force of the film would have been diluted if Connolly had chased every rabbit down every hole.
John | 21 August 2009

For the record, Alan Taylor was not Ambassador Woolcott's 2 IC - he was one of several Counsellors in the Embassy at the time. Malcolm Dan was Minister (i.e. 2 IC).
Rosaleen McGovern | 22 August 2009


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