Sunday, August 16, 2009

Balibo: Tense East Timor Testament

Robert Connolly’s Balibo is a compelling political thriller. It “is a true story” based on Jill Jolliffe’s book, Cover-Up.

It is in fact four stories:
  • The story of five Australian journalists who were murdered at Balibo by the Indonesian forces that invaded East Timor in 1975.
  • Of Roger East, an Australian journalist who sought the truth about their deaths.
  • Of Juliana who testifies as an adult to her experiences in Dili as an eight year old.
  • Of the spirit of the East Timorese people as embodied in their current President José Ramos Horta.
Connolly and playwright David Williamson have constructed a script that has avoided potential pitfalls associated with layers of flashbacks. At times the pace faltered as the context or the suspense was being established.

There is little attempt to present detailed characterisations of the Balibo 5. Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton is the focus of the group. His re-enactment of Shackleton’s famous TV report from the frontline is impressive. You can compare the two on the website. The rivalry between the Channel 9 and Channel 7 crews continues today, though in a less friendly way.

Anthony LaPaglia gives a very convincing performance as Roger East. He has enough weight both figuratively and literally to carry off the role of a seedy, disillusioned journo.

Oscar Isaac manages the difficult job of the young José Ramos Horta. Fortunately he does not try imitating this distinctive and well-known personality.

Gyton Grantley (Gary Cunningham), Nathan Phillips (Malcolm Rennie), Mark Winter (Tony Stewart) and Thomas Wright (Brian Peters) show the depth of Australian acting talent. As does Simon Stone as ABC journalist Tony Maniaty.

The East Timorese cast are exceptional. Anamaria Barreto meets the high expectations of child actors these days as young Juliana. Her parents are Timorese and she lives in Darwin. Bea Viegas gives an intense, moving portrayal of the adult Juliana. Osme Gonsalves also impresses as Ximenes, a Fretlin soldier. It is difficult to find out the names of many of the actors as they are not listed on the website or IMDb.

The film raises many questions about the political responsibility for what happened and the need for justice to be done. This is a dark part of both Indonesian and Australian history. It does not attempt any definitive answers. That would be another movie. The historical background is analysed in depth and can be accessed through the official website.

Balibo works very effectively as both a political statement and a personal drama.

See it!


  1. I think Balibo is an important film because of its correcting the historical record, which negates the official denials of various governments.

    Cinematically, it's not so successful, and it is being over-rated much as so many mediocre local films have been because of their so-called "worthy" subject matter. Balibo's subject matter is more than just "worthy", but that doesn't negate the flawed story-telling. The cross-cutting to the different time frames is clumsy and incoherent at times. Certainly the switching from one time frame to another reduces the momentum of each story.

    LaPaglia's role is not particularly convincing as East and his screaming "I'm an Australian" at the end was unnecessarily repetitive.

    Isaac as Horta is the most convincing and charismatic role and the screen lit up every time he was in the frame. Juliana's story is also effective and was a good device to bookend the picture.

    I definitely recommend the film - if nothing else, it's nice to see Australian cinema giving attention to political issues - but I also think we should call a spade a spade and not talk up a film and ignore its flaws. I'm not talking about any review in particular, but I do think that the film is being talked-up beyond its factual achievements.

  2. I didn't have any problems with the timeframes. I thought they packed a lot into a short time. It's not great but it's better than just good.