In the book Dispatches, Michael Herr’s virtuoso memoir of the Vietnam War, Sean Flynn – Errol’s son – an actor and photojournalist who went missing in action in Cambodia in 1970, is portrayed as a kind of philosopher-adventurer, bounding like a fearless young pup into the centre of the action while nurturing a keen aesthetic sensibility; he is fascinated by the humanity that might be found amid the chaos. Flynn had much in common with Greg Shackleton, an Australian journalist who changed his surname from the more prosaic Hogg, and who was killed, along with five colleagues, by Indonesian soldiers in East Timor in 1975.
Shackleton went to East Timor immediately following the Portuguese withdrawal after 400 years of colonial rule, just as the Indonesian army began amassing at the border in preparation for an invasion. The Vietnam War was over. Gough Whitlam was about to lose office in unprecedented circumstances. Timor was somewhat lost in the mix. Shackleton was killed at Balibo along with Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart of Channel 7, and Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie of Channel 9. Four weeks later, the AAP journalist Roger East was killed too, shot in cold blood along with hundreds of Timorese by Indonesian troops on a Dili wharf, then dumped into the sea.
Robert Connolly’s Balibo focuses on the turmoil of these few weeks. The film’s humanising device is to concentrate on East’s initially blasé, then reluctant, and finally passionate journey to find out what happened to the missing newsmen. Shackleton and the other journalists tried to draw an uninterested world’s attention to a murderous invasion. In crafting a tight political thriller three decades later, Connolly takes up some of the slack.
In the film, a Timorese peasant asks Shackleton, through a translator, “Why … are the Australians not helping us?” ‘Diplomacy’ and ‘neutrality’ might be simple explanations for the world’s decision to turn a blind eye, just as they have been more recently in Darfur and Rwanda. It may be true, as is hinted in this film, that co-operation between Indonesian and Australian intelligence agencies led, inadvertently or otherwise, to the deaths of the Australian journalists. In 2007, a New South Wales coronial inquest was unable to find a single witness, of the many who were brought from East Timor and Indonesia to give testimony, who could corroborate official reports that the men were killed accidentally in crossfire. The inquest concluded that the five were murdered – either shot or stabbed – within minutes of the Indonesians’ arrival. Jill Joliffe’s book Cover-Up: the Inside Story of the Balibo Five, on which Balibo is based, goes more deeply into these matters; it 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. The decision not to make the film too didactic seems wise. With co-screenwriter David Williamson, Connolly has crafted an engaging film in which we come to care about the destiny of an entire people as well as for individual characters.
Damon Gameau delivers a charming portrayal of Shackleton as an old-school, gung-ho, pre-satellite-phone newsman. Shackleton is the cowboy among the Balibo five; when one Timorese fighter says, “The situation here is very tense” (meaning: “You should leave”), Shackleton answers, with nonchalant bravado, “Okay. I think that suits us.” Later, as he heaves and panics from an asthma attack, his vulnerability is moving. These scenes were shot by cinematographer Tristan Milani using old Angénieux lenses like those used by news cameramen in the 1970s, and were then graded differently from the rest of the film: everything is beautifully grainy and off-kilter, with a washed-out, meditative, elegiac quality. Shackleton’s to-camera reports are particularly poignant; they largely replicate the reporter’s real final dispatches.
The roles of the other members of the Balibo five are small, but all add to the film: Nathan Phillips as Shackleton’s friendly rival Malcolm Rennie, Mark Leonard Winter as the sound recordist Stewart, and Thomas Wright and Gyton Grantley as cameramen Peters and Cunningham. Delicately layering their stories, Connolly captures a camaraderie and an affable innocence that make their deaths, when they come, quite viscerally awful. Simon Stone is fascinating in a small but pivotal role as the ABC correspondent Tony Maniaty, a kind of Cassandra to East’s deaf-eared citizen of Troy. He’s the messenger of doom who has seen too much on the frontline, and who had the prescience to flee Balibo before the Indonesians arrived.
There’s a little of Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist from Apocalypse Now in him, though Maniaty is all thousand-yard stare and spooked to Hopper’s drug-addled and maniac. But the film belongs to Anthony LaPaglia as the unlikely hero Roger East. Like a character out of a Graham Greene novel, he is a man without drive or direction who will come to find it through an ordeal by fire, and LaPaglia is just the right actor for this richly textured everyman. When a young José Ramos Horta (Oscar Isaac), having just been refused a meeting with Gough Whitlam in Canberra, asks East to come to Dili and head up the fledgling East Timor News Agency, he promises a cynical East that ETNA will be completely independent. East tells him there’s no such thing. But the journalist in him senses there’s a good story to be uncovered in the disappearance of Shackleton and his colleagues, and he agrees to take up the offer if Horta will first take him to Balibo. Recalling Heart of Darkness, the story thus tracks his journey to a kind of void, a place of disappearance, of savagery and hearsay. East’s shift from disinterested newshound to doomed crusader is perfectly understated. LaPaglia, never a histrionic actor, brings a bristling intelligence that crackles continually beneath his still, cautious surface.
Deep in the jungle, on their long journey from Dili to Balibo, East and Horta are attacked by military helicopters. “That one of yours?” East asks, just before the choppers start firing on them. “Are you fucking kidding me?” says Horta. Soon after, Horta asks East how he thinks the Indonesians found them. “Your government told them,” Horta says. From here, a shaken-up East begins to emerge from his tropical torpor. This allows for Balibo’s unusual but sturdy structure: it is essentially a catch-up narrative, as East and Horta’s journey follows four weeks behind the ill-fated newsmen. The time lapse between the journalists’ deaths and East’s trek to uncover what happened works well, not because of any element of suspense – we know what’s coming – but because we grow to care about the characters and await, with apprehension, their end, which will be both so harrowing and so tawdry.
Balibo is bookended by a prologue and epilogue in which a woman who witnessed the invasion as an eight-year-old (played by Bea Viegas, and by Anamaria Bareto as a child) gives evidence to the Timor-Leste Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. This device feels slightly stiff, and the film takes a while before it hits its stride. But it sets the story of the six long-dead journalists in a wider historical context, and is no doubt the best and most economical of many structures that were tried out. Indeed, Connolly and Williamson tackle head-on and with some élan this question of how to balance the historical and the personal. They touch implicitly upon issues of the media and cultural imperialism. In one of the film’s best scenes, Horta and East argue about whether to go on, and East says he wants justice. “Justice?” says Horta. “You’re pathetic. You walk through a village littered with people, an entire village littered with corpses, and all you care about is these five white journalists.”
“I care about those people,” East retorts. “But the people that I am writing for? They don’t give a fuck about 400,000 brown people, mate. That’ll hit the back pages of the fuckin’ newspapers. But if I find out what happened to those five white Australian journalists, it’s gonna be on the front page, and justice will be served to you and your fucking country.”
“It’s over, Roger,” says an exhausted Horta. “The Indonesians will come. And they will take this land. And no one will know we even exist.” He begins to walk away, then adds, almost as if in a dream, “If you go to Balibo, you will die.”
Like Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), Balibo dramatises an unfolding nightmare that the wider world doesn’t seem to care about. (Interestingly, some of the crucial action of both films takes place in hotels; the hotel becomes a microcosmic metaphor for wider events.) Michael Winterbottom’s fascinating Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), in which Woody Harrelson plays a bemused outsider while the Balkans disintegrate around him, is another companion piece. Like Winterbottom (and like Herr in Dispatches), Connolly vividly captures something of the ad-hoc madness of war; it can seem at times like a disorganised schoolboy game gone terribly wrong. There’s a sense of deadly seriousness, yet also of role-play suddenly made real. The Fretilin guerrillas look sometimes like Bob Marley freedom fighters, and even Horta has a touch of Che about him. Meanwhile, for most of the film the Indonesian soldiers are an off-screen, unseen, imminent presence. By withholding them, Connolly greatly ratchets up the sense of foreboding.
The film’s denouement is terrifying. As the gung-ho, possibly foolhardy, young Australian newsmen start filming the Indonesian soldiers emerging from the jungle, we imagine how exciting it must have felt to get such a scoop, capturing the moment of invasion. The scene was shot on location at the 400-year-old Portuguese fort from which the real journalists filmed in their fateful final hour. Then, through the old Angénieux lens, we see the strangest thing: some of the Indonesian soldiers stop and begin to strip out of their army greens, revealing civilian clothes beneath. “They’re getting changed!” shouts a suddenly very panicked Greg Shackleton. “Gary, they’re getting fucking changed!”
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