Robert Connolly’s Balibo (2009) is one of the strongest and best Australian films of recent years, and a welcome, committed return to the territory and approach of such political thrillers of the 1980s as Heatwave (Phillip Noyce, 1982), Ground Zero (Michael Pattison and Bruce Myles, 1987) and The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982) – the film to which it obviously bares the closest comparison (favourably, I must say). It is also a significant step forward for Connolly as a director. The somewhat mannered, and at times narratively clumsy, qualities of Connolly’s earlier features – the still intriguing and ambitious The Bank (2001) and Three Dollars (2005) – are side-stepped in favour of a more directly responsive, immediate, visceral and, at times, improvised approach to the material, shooting style and surroundings.
Shot in both the Northern Territory and East Timor itself – a sign of the ambition and engagement of the film – Balibo gains immensely from this openness to its surroundings and the environments it finds itself within (which is quite a departure from such a “streamlined” film as The Bank). Although its temporal structure involves various flashbacks and the widespread use of parallel editing, Balibo always remains a work that is tied to the here-and-now, the immediacy, emotions and pain of direct (if retold) experience. This is a significant achievement for a film that is preoccupied with the past and the lessons history can teach us about our place and significance (or lack thereof) in the larger world.
Alongside the general excellence of its ensemble cast, the film’s sense of immediacy is partly achieved through the use of an almost continuously mobile camera and various locations that were the actual settings of the original events, a particularly haunting aspect when the film returns to the border village of Balibo and the locations in which the five Australian, New Zealand and British journalists (known widely as the “Balibo Five”) were killed. In these moments, and elsewhere, the film speaks of an affinity between the film we are watching – and those who made it – and the actions of the television journalists from the Australian television Channels 7 and 9 who attempted, somewhat naïvely and foolhardily as the film poignantly reveals, to report on and document the Indonesian military invasion of East Timor. This emphasis also speaks of the strong and complex relation between Australia and East Timor, as well as the small nation’s fate at the hands of its various colonisers (particularly the Portuguese and Indonesians). A great strength of the film is how it communicates the increasing engagement of the journalists with the cause and events they are attempting to capture and ultimately show to the world.
In essence, Balibo is an almost hymnal work – the use of massed Timorese voices on the soundtrack underpins this – that speaks of the trauma of events that occurred almost 35 years ago (but continued for the East Timorese for at least another 25), and that both countries have struggled to come to terms with (the film is also made almost ten years after the multinational peacekeeping force – largely led by Australia – entered East Timor, partly assuaging Australian guilt, and the Whitlam and subsequent governments’ appeasement of Indonesia, over the 1975 invasion).
In a fashion that brings to mind the combination of newsreel and fictionalised footage in Newsfront (Phillip Noyce, 1978), Balibo also movingly joins together historical footage with the fictionalised restaging of events. The recreation of scenes in which the journalists film their small number of reports – footage that is familiar to anyone who has seen any previous documentaries about the “Balibo Five” and East Timor – manage to both meticulously restage these moments and communicate a sense of directness and improvisation. This is partly achieved through the use of techniques – lots of fast movement, the contrast of particular stocks and grains, etc. – that draw on specific cinematic traditions of political cinema and how to register political engagement deployed in such varied films as La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969), Missing. (Costa-Gavras, 1982), Die Fälschung (Circle of Deceit, Volker Schlöndorff, 1981), The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé, 1984) and Under Fire (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983).
In this respect, the film demonstrates a real engagement with history (both cinematic and actual), and the limited audio-visuals materials that survive and provide a testimony to the cataclysm that was about to engulf East Timor before a decades-long media blackout. The incorporation and restaging of this footage also enables the film to place itself within a particular heritage or history of representation and engagement. Although the journalists that are killed end up being martyrs for the East Timorese cause, the film is also smart enough to recognise that such a fate is as much a matter of chance, youthful folly and naïveté as it is of a more explicit political or existential action or agenda. Balibo’s portrayal of the journalists is quite careful and laconic (the film is often surprisingly funny), allowing us to recognise their individuality, ambition and competitiveness, while also mindful of their ultimate fates.
But this is a film that is also directly engaged with history and the reasons why particular stories need to be retold or exhumed. In this regard, Balibo does not assume a great deal of knowledge on the part of its audience; it provides a more holistic testimony that rhymes with the structuring witness statement that motivates and bookends the film (spoken by an East Timorese woman who was a young girl at the time of the killings). There isn’t a great deal in the film that gives much in the way of background on the complex political and personal histories that precede the events depicted. Nevertheless, in its earlier sections, Balibo does go out of its way to set the period – though never too self-consciously – context, and geography for what we are about to see and become immersed in. For example, there are a number of maps that show the location of both Balibo – a small border village – and East Timor itself. The film largely jettisons the need to tell the full story of events, what led to them and their aftermath (I assume that this is material that we need to fill in), by focusing on the framing relationship between the somewhat forgotten or at least sidelined Australian journalist Roger East (a suitably corpulent Anthony LaPaglia, who lends the role a weighty physicality), murdered when the Indonesians invaded Dili several months after the earlier killings, and the young José Ramos-Horta (played by Oscar Isaac). It is this relationship, and the gradual coming-to-awareness of the once engaged but now predictably jaundiced East, that provides the backbone of the film.
So, although a key element of the film’s identification for Australian audiences is the fate and story of the “Balibo Five”, it also acts to bring the less-well-known tragedy of East’s demise to a broader public awareness. This device also helps foreground the key contrast between innocence and experience that structures much of the film (and that can even be read on a broader national level). Amongst the most moving scenes in the film are those in which East Timorese villagers and Fretilin (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente) fighters declaim the lack of international support for their cause. In these scenes also, Balibo becomes an oddly old-fashioned film of rousing political commitment promoting the ethically and morally important role of the free press. It is in these moments that the gulf in time between 1975 and now becomes most evident. Although on the surface the events the film depicts don’t appear to be obviously periodised – it is thankfully free of key markers of the era (in clothing, technology, etc.), and is generally reticent in detailing such contextualising events as the aftermath of Christmas 1974’s Cyclone Tracy, the constitutional crisis facing the Whitlam government and the end of the war in Vietnam – it does document and narrativise a kind of “coming of age”, the “long night” of East Timor’s occupation and the loss of Australia’s illusionary “diplomatic” immunity or innocence.
Not that the film is without its faults. Like any attempt to tell the story of the Australian, New Zealand and British journalists killed by the Indonesians in East Timor, it can partly be accused of promoting and mourning this loss of a small number of Western nationals at the expense of the 200,000 or so East Timorese who died in the conflict and its brutal aftermath. But a great strength of the film is how it thematises and incorporates such criticisms, largely through the conflicts between East and Ramos-Horta. At various points in their journey to investigate the “Balibo Five”’s disappearance, these characters discuss East’s, and by implication his readership’s (and ours?), preoccupation with their own citizens at the expense of true connection with and concern for the Timorese. This aspect of the film can also be seen, in part, as a kind of self-criticism.
A key purpose of Connolly’s film is to rescue from memory – and history – the story of the “Balibo Five” and Roger East (whose death has always taken a “back-seat” to these earlier killings). In so doing, it casts light on the fate of East Timor and the Australian (and American) government’s complicity (if not downright encouragement) in the late 1975 Indonesian invasion. But it is also hard to imagine such a film being made – or funded – without the central positioning of the “Australian” story that it tells.
This, of course, runs parallel to much of the Australian media’s actual response to the invasion, favouring stories on the fate of Western nationals over the indigenous – and almost completely abandoned – population (this is, of course, no less true today than it was in the 1970s). The somewhat solipsistic nature of this tale is emphasised in the film’s slightly hysterical representation of the Indonesian invasion of Dili. The terror and brutality of this event is well communicated and deeply felt – as is all of the violent action in the film – but by focusing on the fate of East the film tends to marginalise East Timorese experience (though we do see numerous killings of locals). This is accentuated by the performance of LaPaglia in these scenes, when East, despite showing significant and growing concern for the Timorese, shouts a string of obscenities and resorts to the somewhat hysterical and embarrassing (maybe that’s the point) mantra, “I’m an Australian.” This is, in many respects, one of the film’s few truly false notes, but it also provides a summation of one of its key themes: the death of Australia’s naïve isolationism.
In keeping with this general interest in audio-visual history, the affecting concluding images of Balibo are reminiscent of several other recent films about mid-to-late 20th century historical events – such as I’m Not There. (Todd Haynes, 2007) and The Last King of Scotland (Kevin MacDoanld, 2006) – that finally show “actual” images of their subjects (in this case the return of Ramos-Horta to East Timor after the referendum and the arrival of the United Nations) as a means of deepening, justifying and distancing the fictionalised and dramatised events that have come previously. But, unlike these other films, this technique in Balibo acts to support and reinforce the version of events that the film has given us (these are images that come from the same perspective, that have a direct affinity). In I’m Not There., the final mesmerising images of the “real” Dylan demonstrate why Haynes might have chosen such a prismatic structure to represent the mercurial musician, but Balibo’s use of this technique aligns the film to Ramos-Horta’s triumphant return. It also reinforces and reaffirms the passage from innocence to true experience that is so compromised and disabled by the brutal Indonesian invasion.
These moments also pinpoint one of the key points of connection in the film for most audiences, the figure of Ramos-Horta himself. Such historical narratives often stand or fall on their ability to evoke or at least not embarrassingly fudge the representation of well-known (or indeed heroic) figures. Although the version of Ramos-Horta represented here, deeply inflected by various films about the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara, is some distance from the more pragmatic – and profane – figure that can be seen in a film like Tom Zubrycki’s The Diplomat (2000), one can glimpse a continuity and a sense of purpose that links the two figures/representations.
In the end, the film’s major achievement lies in the way in which it doesn’t skirt the direct and unambiguous representation of core events and actions. For example, the killing of the “Balibo Five” is brilliantly and devastatingly staged, leaving the audience in little doubt about the train of events that led to the murders (the film totally rejects the common Indonesian government view that the journalists were caught in crossfire). It is unlikely that the Indonesian authorities will embrace this film on almost any level, but this scene makes such a rejection a certainty. Balibo is no Rashomon-like account of events, an approach to history that would reflect or attempt to simulate the prismatic nature of subjectivity and the many-sidedness of retold events (an approach that was actually requested by the Indonesian authorities). Although the details of events and their motivations are still open to debate – and always will be considering the vastly different perspectives and investments of the various participants – the film is at its strongest and most committed when showing these events directly and up-front. The film concludes with melancholy photographs of the “Balibo Five”, but its great achievement lies in the way it combines the stories and fate of those five men with those they tried to represent.
Balibo will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Opening Night, Friday 24 July, at 7:00 PM; Monday 27 July at 7:00 PM, and Wednesday 5 August at 7:00 PM.