The story of the murder of three Channel 7 journalists (reporter Greg Shackleton, sound recordist Tony Stewart, and cameraman Gary Cunningham) and two from Channel 9 (reporter Malcolm Rennie, and cameraman Brian Peters) – known as the Balibo Five – in October 1975 at Balibo during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and the subsequent murder in December of journalist Roger East is one that has long been demanding a telling on film. We are lucky that it fell to Connolly and screenwriter David Williamson to do the telling.
The film focuses mostly of the story of Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) as he travels to East Timor at the behest of a young Jose Ramos Horte (Oscar Isaac) – at the time the Fretlin Foreign Minister – to try and discover the fate of the five young journalists. Intercut with scenes of East and Horte are flashbacks to the five journalists as they travel to Balibo to film the invasion. The intercutting of stories and chronology could have been confusing, however Connolly uses the clever device of filming the scenes of the Balibo Five with lenses from the period – giving those scenes a distinct news footage appearance, thus not only allowing the viewer to differentiate between the two narratives, but also heightening the sense of realism – we are in effect seeing the footage of the journalists that they would be murdered for taking.
The film’s attention is thus on the small picture of the fates of the six men, rather than looking at the broader political events going on in the background. Some critics have suggested this is to the detriment of the film, and I must admit that I had wished the film could have been 30 minutes longer if only to flesh out the context of the events; however in some ways that is a story to be told in another film. Sure we could have seen shots of the Australian embassy in Jakarta and officials in Canberra looking at cables and musing about what to tell the Prime Minister and so on; but Connolly puts his all into showing us the journey of the six men, and in doing so he has crafted a tense political thriller that exists independently to an extent of the border context. These journalists were all murdered – would knowing what those in Canberra knew make their deaths any more wrong? It certainly didn't make the story any less tense – much of the film is white knuckle stuff.
Any telling of the events of Balibo, will always create some controversy; but in all honesty, the film is not controversial. Connolly lets Gough Whitlam off pretty lightly (rightly or wrongly), and he shows (whether this was intended or not) that the journalists all knew the risks of staying and through inexperience, naivety, desire for the story, sense of justice, and perhaps just being dumb they stayed. Far from blaming the Australian Government, the film makes it obvious that having two competing teams of reporters made it unlikely either was going to be the first to leave, unlike ABC journalist Tony Maniaty (played by Samuel Johnson) who writing of the events in June this year said:
What happened in Balibo may have been avoided if the news safety strategies employed by major TV networks today had been applied back then. But they weren't, and the result was that five young men exposed themselves to a near-certain death scenario….
Correspondents in war zones are always confronted by a single, hammering anxiety: when to stay, and when to go? This was the core issue facing the Balibo Five, and, in misjudging the timing and scope of the risks involved, they exposed themselves to a ruthless enemy.
He also makes the important point that:
Of course none of this excuses the brutal fact of their murders.
I realise that in reviewing this film I have probably spent as much time discussing the events depicted, as their depiction. But that is what is so great about Balibo; it is a film well told of events that are not black or white, that has you afterwards chatting with others about the events, and wondering what you would have done, what the men should have done, and the horror that was actually done.
And when it comes to the horror of the murders, the film reaches great heights. The actors portraying the five are in superb form, and all convey with sharp intensity the moment when they realise they are going to be killed. The facade of professional journalists disappears, replaced by that of young men not wanting to die, but knowing there is no way out. It is a shattering scene, made all the more so by Connolly’s camera work and lack of music. The sound of the bullets is distinctly un-Hollywood; their deaths shot without glamour.
LaPaglia as East is as good as he ever has been – perhaps only his role in Lantana comes close, and Isaac as Horte is a revelation. If there is justice, he would be nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but that will of course depend on the film getting a release in America. Which it certainly does deserve.
I do have some criticisms of the film. Until the end, I had little sense of the horror for the East Timorese people of the invasion – even a scene of East and Horte discovering dozens of murdered villages lacks a real punch. The scene of Horte leaving East in Dili is also one that could have done with a re-write. Horte gives a nice little speech that is a bit overwrought, but when he leaves the sense that East has chosen death is not as intense as it could be – the scene in The Killing Fields of Sydney Shanberg leaving Dith Pran at Phnom Penh airport was must more intense. Admittedly those two were much closer than East and Horte, but I feel it all happened a bit too quickly, and a bit too matter of factly. Maybe that is how is was in reality, but given the license Connolly did take with some parts of the story (such as a fight between East and Horte), it would have been advisable for some more emotion to be wrung out of this moment.
But these are minor quibbles. Balibo is not the greatest Australian film ever made (as some have suggested), but it sure as hell is a great Australian film, and of a standard that we can only pray more of will be made by Australian film makers.Shamefully it is only showing on 23 screens (GI Joe: Rise of Cobra by comparison is on 223), and it made only $282,ooo in its first week. But its screen average is a whopping $12,268 (GI Joe’s average is 8,500). Hopefully more distributers will take note of the screen average and put it on in a few more screens and this film can make some decent money.
Go see it.