Balibo Thoughts

January 31st, 2010


Balibo is the true story of 5 Australian journalists (the Balibo Five) and Roger East who were killed by Indonesian soldiers in the invasion of then Portuguese Timor in 1975. Both the Australian and Indonesian governments have worked to conceal the truth of the events which itself is, by recent Australian inquiry, inconclusive. The story is based on Jill Jolliffe’s Cover-Up and, as one of the other reporters on the island near the time of the invasion, assumes her interpretation of the events.

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I don’t like Anthony LaPaglia, supposedly he’s from Adelaide, but that still doesn’t change the fact. At the start of Balibo, his role as ABC reporter Roger East, validates my opinion. He comes across as an asshole; self-interested and ignorant to the plight of youthful FRETLIN politician José Ramos-Horta. Impressed by the sense of justice shown in East’s previous coverage of the Vietnam War and in South American, Horta comes to Darwin to convince Mr East to join his news agency in Dili, in the hope that he will spread awareness of the growing injustice of the Indonesian government towards the people of Timor. East refuses and while quarreling with Horta asks about the five young journalists supposedly situated on the island. Horta spitefully hands East photos and reveals that the men have been missing for 3 weeks, before leaving.

There’s an uneasy air surrounding the situation in Timor and East grows curious, he senses something amiss and decides to rest his suspicions. He meets ABC reporter Michael Richardson who was formerly with the other journalists, but returned to Australia in fear of his safety. Distraught from his experience, he tells East that an Indonesian invasion of Timor is surely imminent and that East would be foolish to go after them.

Determined to seek resolution of the whereabouts of the journalists, East agrees to work in Horta’s newsagency, so long as he can first go to Balibo (where the journalists were last headed). It’s implied that East plans to use Horta to reach Balibo and find answers. Horta accepts the deal.

Balibo is actually a telling of two stories, woven into the one. The overarching story is of East’s—the unofficial 6th member of the Balibo Five—pursuit for the truth. The second story is of the original five and is told a month ahead of East’s story as a series of vignettes.  This creates a riveting dynamic where East is following the trail of a story whose event’s–interspersed with his own–are unfolding before the audience. We can see the tragedy which is about to occur, and it leaves a haunting tone throughout the feature. The Balibo 5 story is shot with a 16mm-to-35mm lens, adding a blue filter to the scene and allowing viewers to differentiate between the two storylines.

The two stories are part of a dual narrative presented through the recollection of an East Timorese woman who is being interviewed for documentation purposes. As we discover, as a young girl, the woman worked in her father’s hotel, the Gran Turismo, where the Balibo Five and East had stayed during their time in Timor. She also witnessed East’s shocking execution at the end of the movie. She’s being interviewed alongside many hundreds of East Timorese who lived through the invasion and liberation of their country. By beginning and concluding the movie in the present day and in such a context, frames the story of the journalists in the wider struggle of the East Timorese’s fight for independence. As the lady leaves the interview at the movie’s closing, and the next person in line steps in and were given a scope of the real people who lived through their own stories of the invasion.

The story of the Balibo Five is frightening as their execution, by the hand of the Indonesian army, looms over the story. One can see the group’s naïve dismissal of warning signs with insistence of bettering the rival stations; Richardson warning the others not to venture any further, the mortar fire which drops during a shoot, the further warning by the group’s driver and then their final pursuit for footage of the invading Indonesian forces undressing from civilian disguises, which ultimately led to their demise. Two of the movie’s key scenes: the initial drop of mortar fire on the journey to Balibo and the killing of the Balibo Five are downright shocking. The film was shot so that the actors themselves traced the journey of the original five. It’s clear that this journey gave the actors a sense of respect and understanding which contributed to these  scenes that they largely improvised. They portray a realistic fear of life about to reach its early end and it’s incredibly moving.

East suffers the same fate, but his story inspires a little more hope. As East travels to Balibo he slowly warms to the Timorese and looks beyond the death of the five journalists to the greater impact on the native people. His realisation all comes to the forefront when in a school torn apart by the Indonesian army, he argues with Horta that in the Australian press the importance of the five Australian journalists far outweighs that of the Timorese population, Horta labels this as selfish and irresponsible, their argument leads into a brief fight. In the end, I think, East, through his personal experience, begins to understand Horta’s message and therefore eventually takes up his cause. Balibo doesn’t assert much political opinion, however, this scene wisely provides context of the situation at large.

The movie ends with the invasion of the Dili by Indonesian forces who physically remove East from Horta’s newsagency and drag him out for execution on a neighbouring jetty. I found this scene to be incredibly arresting as East, attempting to escape the soldier’s grip, cries “I’m Australian”, trying to alert the soldiers of his separation from the conflict. He learns, however, that he is an innocent as the East Timorese.


I guess I appreciate Anthony LaPaglia now, Balibo is one of the most gripping movies I’ve seen in a long time. Balibo is unsettling and at times frighteningly realistic, but as is repeated many times throughout trailers and the extra features (which are plentiful), it’s a story that had to be told. A compelling tragedy which concludes on an uplifting note.