Review – By Bruce Honeywill in Dili
Balibo, the movie, has two special Amnesty International screenings in Auckland before going on general New Zealand cinema release on Thursday. The film, banned in Indonesia, tells the story of the murder of five members of two Australian-based television news crews in a tiny East Timorese border village in 1975. The narrative exposes the duplicity of the Australian government – and New Zealand – in covering the truth of the deaths for more than a quarter of a century.
In 2010, I stand on the wall of the old Portuguese fort overlooking the tiny mountain village of Balibo. I was here previously, 10 years ago.
East Timor then, for a short period, was an undeclared territory under United Nations sovereignty. The Indonesian military had just withdrawn after 24 years of occupation. As the Indonesian forces withdrew in late 1999, they and pro-Indonesian militia put the tiny impoverished nation to the torch in one of the horrors of recent history.
I worked for a time with journalist/author Jill Jolliffe filming eyewitness accounts of various witnesses to the violent deaths of these five journalists and camera crew. I followed, with my camera, witnesses’ graphic descriptions of the last minutes of the lives of the group now known as the Balibo Five.
The witnesses came from both the defending East Timorese military (Falantil) and pro-Indonesian militia working with Indonesian special forces. The witnesses described how the news crews were killed by the bullet and blade of the Indonesian military and its supporters.
These witness accounts added to the volumes of research collected by Jolliffe in what became her life obsession to see the truth of her colleagues’ deaths revealed.
Journalist Jill Jolliffe's original book Cover-Up has been republished as Balibo.
Jolliffe’s ensuing book Cover-Up not only told the story of the murders of the members of the news crews but exposed the complicity of the then Australian Labor government with the United States and Britain, in tacitly supporting the invasion of East Timor by Suharto’s Indonesia.
The book particularly focused on the Australian government’s “cover-up” of the truth of the deaths of the Balibo Five.
The story of the Balibo Five was taken by screen writer/director Robert Connolly and producer John Maynard to become the feature film Balibo.
While honed to a partly fictional narrative to meet market expectations, the accounts of the deaths of the journalists and crew are chillingly accurate to the eyewitness accounts.
The Balibo Five working for the Seven and Nine Networks in Australia mirrored the cultural makeup of their grandfathers’ generation at Gallipoli – a Kiwi, three Aussies and a Pom all under the common flag of journalism and the world’s right to know.
The Balibo Five were all in their 20s; they distilled the excitement, anarchy and inexperience of television news in those early decades before the commodification we see today.
The two journalists in particular, Greg Shackleton and Malcolm Rennie, were young and ambitious at a time when the first rule of television journalism was “get the story”. The second rule “get the story first”.
Cameraman Gary Cunningham was born in Wellington in 1947. Described as “a big, affable fellow”, Cunningham worked with the New Zealand National Film Unit in Dunedin. He was seconded to the NZ Broadcasting Corporation as a news cameraman where he won an award for his coverage of the Wahine ferry disaster.
Cunningham moved to Australia to further his love of news cinematography. After two years at the Nine Network he moved to Channel Seven in whose employment he remained until his death.
While the story of the murders of the Balibo Five is the throbbing, tragic heart of the film, the narrative follows the exploits of another journalist, Roger East (Anthony Lapaglia). The story of the events leading up to and following the death of the Balibo Five is seen through the eyes of East and his interactions with a young José Ramos Horta played by Oscar Isaac.
The premise for the film is a videtaped investigative interview with a fictional Juliana, beautifully played by Bea Viegas, an East Timorese woman in her first acting role. Juliana describes how she, as a girl, watched Roger East’s execution on the wharf at Dili.
The Balibo Five are strongly played by Damon Gameau (Shackleton), Gyton Grantley (Cunningham), Mark Winter (Tony Stewart), Nathan Phillips (Rennie) and Thomas Wright as Brian Peters. The cinematic approach uses hand-held cameras with high grain film for the Balibo Five story that interweaves with the more traditionally shot Roger East narrative.
The skilled depths of Lapaglia’s acting and his obvious passion for the project drives the story through the few little bumps brought about by the challenges of filming on location in Dili and Balibo (although the actual death scenes had to be filmed in Darwin as the reality was considered too violent for the still traumatised East Timorese of the border towns).
This film tells a story of deep duplicity of powerful governments prepared to throw away ethical and moral responsibilities for political expediency.
It is a film of journalists at work, and sends the message that when the proverbial “hits the fan” we are all on our own.
There are a couple of interesting sidelights to the film. The East Timorese video cameraman filming the evidence of Juliana is none other than José Belo, today’s most outspoken journalist in East Timor and who won the Café Pacific award for free speech. (Balibo won the film category).
The person playing the Tetum-speaking Australian investigator is Major Michael Stone, former SAS and now military advisor to the President of East Timor, José Ramos Horta.
Here in Balibo, 2010, from my perch high on the wall of the fort I see the little town of Balibo below me: The ‘Australian Flag House’ where Greg Shackleton famously painted the Australian flag in the mistaken belief this would protect him and his colleagues, now a monument to the memory of the Balibo Five.
Across the square, the “death house” is empty and crumbling. Here in 2000 I filmed recent bullet holes, lipstick “kiss marks” revealing this was a “kissing wall” – a place of rape and murder of women, and the iconic parachute emblem of Kopassus (Indonesian special forces).
Today the old house is starting to fall in on itself as if the load of horrors over a quarter of a century is too much for the architecture.
Out across the mountains, rain clouds flume through the valleys. Corn, green with the Wet Season, grows right up to the fort wall.
I ponder on Balibo the Movie in apposition to the real Balibo beneath me. I am no film critic, just a journalist who has paid to see, in Australia, the film three times.
This is a film that everybody in the Asia-Pacific region should see. It’s a story of the counterpoint to powerful “sheriff nations” and emerging nations with aspirations of freedom. It’s a story about how the affluent can be blind to hardship, poverty and violence less than an hour distant from Australia.
This is a film of our corner of the world. Do make the effort.
Bruce Honeywill has been a journalist for 25 years work in print, radio television and online, specialising in social and environmental issues in remote Northern Australia and East Timor. He has also been a journalism educator in Australia and New Zealand.
Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up has been republished under the title of Balibo . Tony Maniaty’s book Shooting Balibo also tells the story. Balibo, the movie. Investigative journalist Peter Cronau, one of the founders of Pacific Media Watch, also has a forthcoming book about Roger East, The Last Reporter.