East Timor's bloody nightmare

August 9, 2009

BaliboDirected by Robert ConnollyBased on the book by Jill JolliffeIn cinemas from August 13

Robert Connolly's Balibo is an account of the murder of five journalists who went to East Timor to cover Indonesia's illegal cross-border incursions into the then-Portuguese territory on October 16, 1975 in the border town of Balibo.

The five newsmen were Greg Shackleton (played by Damon Gameau), Tony Stewart (Mark Winter), Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley), Brian Peters (Thomas Wright) and Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips).

In April 1974, against the backdrop of the looming US defeat in Vietnam, a democratic section of the Portuguese Army overthrew the fascist government in Lisbon. Anti-colonial movements flourished in the Portuguese colonial possessions as the government began to move towards decolonisation of its territories.

In East Timor, three political parties formed: the left wing, pro-independence FRETILIN (East Timor National Liberation Front), the conservative Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), which wanted continued political association with Portugal; and APODETI, which wanted integration with Indonesia.

A civil war broke out between Fretilin and UDT. UDT appealed from border camps in West Timor for Indonesian help to defeat Fretilin. This fitted in with Indonesia's desire to annex the territory.

Balibo draws on Australian writer Jill Jollife's book Cover Up, an investigation of the involvement of Indonesian forces in the murder of the five men, and the cover up by the Indonesian government that followed, ably supported by its counterparts in Canberra.

Australia, under Liberal and Labor governments, was the only country to give legal recognition to Indonesia's occupation of East Timor from 1975-1999.

The screenplay co-written by Connolly and playwright John Williamson adroitly narrates three timelines: the fatal journey of the Balibo Five, the Australian freelance journalist Roger East's visit to East Timor and the present, in which an eyewitness recounts the Indonesian invasion on December 7 1975.

Roger East (Anthony Lapaglia) went to East Timor to find out what happened to the five newsmen. He arrived just after FRETILIN declared independence from Portugal on 28 November 1975, with the Indonesian invasion imminent. East witnessed the invasion in the form of Indonesian paratrooper commandos, who began a mass slaughter in the streets of Dili.

East, along with many Timorese was executed at the end of the Dili wharf. Their bodies were dumped into the sea. These were the first of the estimated 185,000 East Timorese to die during the occupation.

Focusing on the lives of the Australians means that the struggles of the East Timorese tend to become a backdrop for the "white man's burden" and their experiences. However, the film tries to capture the pro-independence feeling in 1975.

The strength of the direction, script and acting makes it a satisfying cinematic experience. Balibo is in the tradition of other hard-hitting accounts of courage and martyrdom such as John Duigan's Romero, the story of the assassination of El Salvador's outspoken archbishop.

The sights and sounds of the invasion are muted in this film; they need to be seen, heard and heeded.

Until now the Rudd government has not acted on NSW deputy coroner Dorelle Pinch's recommendation in 2007 to look at prosecutions against Indonesian army Special Forces operatives Yunus Yosfiah and Cristoforus da Silva for the deaths of the Balibo Five.

Balibo reminds us that there are still injustices to be fought.

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