Inspired by journalist Jill Jolliffe’s book “Cover Up,” Robert Connolly’s controversial political thriller “Balibo” attempts to uncover the truth behind the brutal deaths of six journalists in East Timor in 1975. It’s highly charged, emotive and powerful, but it’s also exceptionally brave film-making because it dares to challenge the long-held official line of events of not one, but two governments (that of Indonesia and Australia).
Connolly seamlessly interweaves the story of the disappearance of five journalists (the Balibo Five) with that of washed-up investigative hack Roger East (a magnificent Anthony LaPaglia) who is enticed to tiny East Timor by its secretary of foreign affairs Jose-Ramos Horta (Oscar Issac). East’s motivation, initially at least, stems more from a sense of duty to the missing journalists, (all of whom work for Australian networks and thus will make for a far juicier story) than from any compunction to tell the story of the East Timorese who lie at the relative mercy of an invading Indonesian army. But as East delves deeper into the mystery surrounding his peers’ disappearance, he uncovers unspeakable atrocities being committed in the Balibo border region of the country and thus feels compelled to report to the world the story of the Indonesian invasion as well as that of the Balibo Five.
It’s an incredibly tense and emotive roller coaster of a film; as East is uncovering killing fields, Connolly skips back to convey the equally brutal and tragic fate of the five journalists a matter of weeks before. It’s sometimes galling viewing, but the overriding sense is that Connolly is delivering uncomfortable truisms about an unfamiliar yet extremely important moment in history. Connolly’s urgent, politicized and heartfelt screenplay implies that the Australian government and indeed the wider global community turned a blind eye to the situation, essentially giving Indonesia free rein to commit war crimes. In addition, Connolly’s skilful direction — utilizing East Timor as the actual setting for “Balibo” — lends the picture an archival, authentic and authoritative tone.
There is a strong case made for the importance and courage of news journalists, a case which is strengthened by a powerhouse of a performance from LaPaglia as East, which stands as a true testament to the moral convictions held by many journalists that sometimes a story has to be told, whatever the cost. Issac, too, is impressive as future President Horta, at once embodying the drive and bravery of the people of East Timor, longing for self determination while despairing at an uncaring world.
It’s a remarkable, heart-wrenching and highly personal picture that transcends the medium of film by threatening to ensconce the story of the injustices that the people East Timor faced after the Indonesian invasion and subsequent rule into the collective consciousness of everyone who sees it. It’s also a resounding condemnation of the Indonesian and Australian governments, who for so long ignored the calls for justice for the Balibo Five and East. “Balibo” is shocking, raw and absorbing film-making of the very highest quality, which benefits from its directorial craft and compelling acting — but most importantly from its verity.
(Originally featured at www.criticsnotebook.com on 20/10/2009)