Response from Balibo consulting historian to John Pilger

October 19, 2009

Lewis Carroll once wrote about a fictitious map that was so topographically accurate, it was as large as the country it was mapping.

It had never been spread out, of course, because "the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."

Balibo runs for less than two hours but deals with real events lasting two months. The competing demands of accuracy, concision and aesthetics mean that one has to decide in advance what to leave out, what to leave in, and how to re-enact certain events. This would be true even if we were talking about a 300-hour documentary.

The nature of screen drama imposes certain constraints on filmmakers. A screenplay is a fragmentary form of storytelling, and a movie is best understood as a collection of fragments.

Only comic books are more fragmentary. Since not everything can be told, not even in a multi-volume historical series, filmmakers strive for a cogent story that is dramatically effective and engages the audience rationally as well as emotionally.

We made some creative changes to get the best out of the unique advantage enjoyed by films — their ability to show you "what it feels like to be there". There are differences between Balibo and the historical events it depicts, largely due to constraints specific to the medium of film.

John Pilger is a successful documentary maker, but I don't know whether his style is suitable for feature films, which need to engage the audience emotionally. If done well, it prompts questions and opens up spaces that had previously been shut down.

Pilger has no evidentiary support for his claim (GLW #812) that "Australian intelligence had known 12 hours in advance that the journalists in Balibo faced imminent death, and the government did nothing".

In fact, the NSW Coroner dealt with the so-called Murdani-Dading signals intelligence (Sigint) intercept to which he refers. Here's what she concluded:

"None of the witnesses who gave evidence at the inquest about Sigint material they saw from 1975 onwards saw any material in terms of the alleged Murdani-Dading intercept.

"In summary, therefore,
a) there is no extant intercept or report referring to it;
b) no witness has ever seen such an intercept or report; and
c) those nominated as being able to validate its existence, namely, Messrs. Brownbill, Cunliffe and Cameron have specifically given evidence to the contrary. Hence, there is nothing before the inquest to indicate that such a document ever existed."

If Pilger indeed has contradictory evidence, he should produce it.

Clinton Fernandes
Canberra, ACT

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.