Potted Movie Review: Balibo

I don't often get seriously emotional at the movies, or if I do then it's generally one set emotion, sadness, rage, joy...however in sitting through Balibo I ran the gauntlet of several emotions, from frustration through to rage through to sorrow through to utter impotence. That six people could be murdered by the Indonesian militia during the invasion of East Timor in late 1975 staggers me, not to mention the over 180,000 Timorese that were also murdered, raped and tortured. That the murderers of both the Balibo Five and Roger East have often been named but never been held to account frankly disgusts me. A war crime is a war crime, but, as we're seeing even today, it's a difficult thing to prosecute a war crime when there's essential resources involved, such as oil.

I think every Australian over the age of 40 has at some point been aware of the Balibo Five, such was the public indignation over the years as more and more information came to hand. The men were journalists who were slaughtered in the line of their duty, that duty being the reporting and recording of the advancing Indonesian invasion, an invasion that was well underway before it was 'officially' recognised. The men weren't subversives, they clearly indicated that they were Australian journalists and were killed regardless, under the guise of being communists. Journalist Roger East set himself the task of finding out just what happened and was also murdered on the docks of Dili, despite it being common knowledge that he was also an Australian journalist. The Whitlam Government of the time knew what happened and ignored it outright, as did successive governments. It took images of Indonesians marching through the streets of Dili with severed heads on sticks for the Howard Government to finally act in 1999 when a ground force was sent to East Timor to assist in the liberation of the nation. Despite claims that the Indonesian militia were preparing for a fight, they'd withdrawn hours before the Australian military finally landed, over twenty years too late.

Robert Connolley has created one of the most impressive and powerful movies of it's kind. It's a movie that could only really be made independently, partially funded by actor Anthony LaPaglia. The movie is shot through the eyes of Roger East, as played brilliantly by LaPaglia (who, frankly, hasn't been this good in a film since Lantana) and follows his own personal journey into the heart of darkness of Timor in search of the truth of what happened to the Balibo Five. Using a combination of styles and film stock - the Roger East portions of the movie are shot with clear, high contrast film, the sections focusing on the Balibo Five are shot almost as a documentary using washed out film - Connolley builds the story to it's obvious conclusion.

The murders of the Balibo Five are dealt with in a very matter of fact way. There are no heroics, no desperate last stands, just five men running for their lives and being killed on the orders of the leader of the invading ground forces. There's nothing grand about it, just a sense of waste and disgust at the cowardice that was shown towards the journalists. The most impacting moment of the film, for me, was seeing Roger East being dragged to the docks, bloodied and beaten, hands tightly bound by wire and being forced to stand to be shot down in cold blood. This is based upon witness accounts of the actual event, East screamed obscenities, kicked and struggled as he was being dragged and when standing screamed, "I'm an Australian! I'm an Australian!" to no avail. As with the Balibo Five, Roger East's murder and murderers have gone unpunished for over thirty years.

I can't recommend this movie highly enough. It should be shown in schools as part of every Australian's education, it should be shown to anyone who even thinks that being a war-time correspondent might be a fun thing to do. See it before it leaves the big screens. I doubt that anyone would be able to sit through this film and not be touched by the events or feel strong emotions.

War does not breed heroes, it produces a new breed of coward. What happened in East Timor in 1975, through to 1999, should never have been allowed to happen. It should never have been sanction by successive Australian governments. And what happened to Roger East and the Balibo Five shouldn't be allowed to go unpunished.


Anonymous said…
Thank you for your review of Balibo. You captured many of the emotions I felt when I saw it at the premiere at the MIFF last month. I was on vacation from the US and are therefore even more ignorant of the politics of the region than most of the people in the audience. But the story of Balibo has universal lessons. This movie needs to be seen all over the world, including the US, but sadly I fear that the shallow Hollywood machine won't acknowledge it. I'm lucky that I got to see it.

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