Balibo

Review by Jane Freebury

This is an out-of-date news story, but it’s my guess there’s life in it yet. Though it’s hard to credit why it’s taken so long to tell in a country like ours.

At last the story of how five Australian journalists met their deaths when Indonesian forces invaded Portuguese East Timor in 1975 has seen the light of day. It’s 34 years after the event and two years on from a NSW coronial enquiry that contradicted the government line they were caught in crossfire.

With their cumbersome 16mm cameras at the ready, the five young TV newsmen with Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau) in the lead drove into the heights of East Timor for a vantage point to report on the imminent invasion. A sixth journo, Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), entered the country a few weeks later to find out what happened to them.

The Indonesians were moving swiftly. It took them just nine days after the tiny nation declared independence from its colonial masters for them to move in. How were the people of Timor Leste to know that benign neglect was the safer option?

The Australian television crews made their way to a 400-year-old garrison in Balibo, with sweeping views of the sea. Why they stayed until the invading forces actually walked into town, is a mystery. Did friendly rivalry for the scoop between the boys from Channel 7 and Channel 9 make them throw caution to the winds?

You couldn’t argue that veteran journalist Roger East was the victim of inexperience too, and it was his nose for the scoop that got him in the end too. His friend Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) cautioned him to leave, but he ignored the advice.

The story of East is far less well-known, and his quest for information about what exactly had happened to the Balibo Five drives the narrative. It is all terrifically effective, and hits its stride early so its confidence and momentum make the movie a particularly effective political thriller too.

Director Robert Connolly (The Bank) has made a powerful and emotionally wrenching piece, with a strong claim to truth that I think many will respond to. The inconvenient truth of the newsmen’s deaths appears to have sunk in interests of realpolitik and the tragedy of occupation for the East Timorese is not unconnected either.

The summer of 1975 was long ago and the young newsmen were foolhardy and naive. Most of us were basking in the heat, and tossing prawns on our barbies while they chased their story. The Whitlam Government was about to be dismissed and it was not a good time for Australians to run into trouble overseas, but it’s still no excuse.

In a capsule: A really powerful, wrenching film based on a true story of the deaths of six Australia-based journalists during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. So well put together that it works equally well as a compelling political thriller.

4 stars

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