Balibo is a 2009 Australian war film that follows the story of the Balibo Five, a group of journalists who were captured and killed while reporting on activities just prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor of 1975. While historically accurate, the film is loosely based on the book Cover-Up by Jill Jolliffe, an Australian journalist who met the men before they were killed.
The film follows dishevelled journalist Roger East, played by Anthony LaPaglia, who travels to East Timor in 1975 to investigate the deaths of the Balibo Five during the buildup to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Oscar Isaac plays the young José Ramos-Horta, who would later receive the Nobel Peace Prize and become the second President of East Timor, who joins East in the movie.
Filming began on 30 June 2008, in Dili, East Timor, and the film was released the following year. It was produced by Arenafilm in Australia with Robert Connolly as director, David Williamson as screenwriter, and Professor Clinton Fernandes as historical consultant. LaPaglia, also an Executive Producer, named East as "probably the best role I've ever had".
The story is seen through the eyes of veteran journalist Roger East. Introduced as a once-fearless foreign correspondent now working in PR in Darwin, East is drawn to East Timor by José Ramos-Horta of Fretilin; then the fledgling republic's charismatic young secretary of foreign affairs. Initially refusing to become involved, East changes his tune after Ramos-Horta shows him photos of five Australian TV reporters missing in the border town of Balibo.
Vignettes then show Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters and Tony Stewart, all under 30, saying goodbye to loved ones and setting out on their assignments a month earlier.
Parallel action follows with the Balibo Five tracked from East Timor's capital to their terrifying end after filming the Indonesian advance, and East and Ramos-Horta retracing their steps through by now extremely dangerous territory. Shackleton's last surviving report is recreated: sitting in a village, he says its inhabitants don't know if they will be alive tomorrow and have asked him why no one in Australia or anywhere else will help.
Drawing attention to the techniques of news gathering and delivery in 1975, the film raises the idea of what might have happened had the Balibo Five not been cut off from communicating with the world and slowed by heavy 16mm film equipment.
Bookended by contemporary scenes of a fictional East Timorese woman remembering East and life under Indonesian occupation, the film closes with a tribute to the nation's rebirth in 1999 and the many tens of thousands of lives lost in the struggle for independence.Anthony LaPaglia as Roger East
Oscar Isaac as José Ramos-Horta
Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton
Gyton Grantley as Gary Cunningham
Nathan Phillips as Malcolm Rennie
Mark Winter as Tony Stewart
Thomas Wright as Brian Peters
Balibo was the first feature film to be made in East Timor. Shooting in Dili began on 31 July 2008, with United Nations police closing off roads, to allow the scenes to be filmed. Gritty 16mm-to-35mm visuals shot at the actual locations where the events took place give a documentary-style texture.
The film's version of events was validated by an Australian coroner in 2007. After a fresh review of the evidence, the coroner ruled that the journalists were executed as they tried to surrender to Indonesian forces. The filmmakers hope that Balibo will spur the Australian government into action. Almost 18 months on, it has not responded to the coroner's findings - a reticence which may stem from its fear of upsetting diplomatic relations with Jakarta. Robert Connolly said that he did not set out to provoke Jakarta but wanted to examine a seminal moment in Indonesia's 24-year occupation of East Timor, when an estimated 183,000 people died: "I think it had to be graphic because otherwise you dangerously dilute what happened."
Rotten Tomatoes gives a score of 100% based on 11 reviews, 81% of audiences like the film.
Balibo received its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 24 July 2009 at Melbourne's Hamer Hall. The then President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta was in attendance and an address alleged that the Balibo Five were tortured and killed by Indonesian forces. On changes over recent years in Indonesia Ramos-Horta said "It is better. Indonesian democracy today is one of the most inspiring in the south-east Asia region." Also in attendance were the families of the Balibo Five. Relatives of Tony Stewart held aloft a banner bearing his name which had been embroidered by East Timorese women. Maureen Tolfree, sister of Brian Peters, said she hoped many Australians would see the film and that she thought "...it will bring to the Australian public what's gone on," she said.
Variety's Richard Kuipers dubbed the film "a tense, character-driven thriller with political comment on the side, allowing viewers with little or no prior knowledge of the subject matter to engage instinctively with the Balibo Five," filmed where it happened and "packing a huge emotional punch". Kuipers continues: "LaPaglia is particularly good as the weary scribe who slowly rediscovers his old fire, and Isaac sparks off him impressively as the younger man whose ability to read people is as sharp as his political acumen."
Screen International's Frank Hatherley opined: "Shot on location with loving attention to period detail, the film's take on these long-buried events is convincing. Connolly's three strands are expertly woven together, coming to twin climaxes where terror and cruelty overwhelm everyone. These ‘killing field' scenes are not for the squeamish."
The Monthly's Luke Davies wrote: "Jill Jollife's book ... argues that the Australian government has always known the exact circumstances of the newsmen's deaths. Connolly doesn't try to answer such questions, but rather lets them echo in the film." Davies commended Connolly and co-screenwriter David Williamson for having "crafted an engaging film in which we come to care about the destiny of an entire people as well as for individual characters", and that "the film's denouement is terrifying", making it a realistic and confronting experience.
Balibo grossed $1,330,863 at the box office in Australia.
The film was to have premiered in Indonesia at the 2009 Jakarta International Film Festival. However, in advance of a private screening, the film was banned by the Indonesian Film Censorship Agency. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the ban was to avoid a negative "global perception of Indonesia". The Indonesian military supported the ban, with a spokesman saying the film could harm Indonesia's relations with Timor Leste and Australia. He also repeated the official version of events, namely that the journalists were killed in a crossfire, and not by Indonesian troops.