Based on Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-up (now republished as Balibo with extra chapters and information by Scribe Publications), Balibo is a searing and dramatic film about the true story of the lead-up to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, and an Australian journalist’s search for the truth.
The film crosses three perspectives and three timeframes. It starts with a present-day interview with Juliana, who as an eight year old witnessed the devastation caused by the invasion of Dili by Indonesian troops, including the systematic execution of innocent civilians. She tells her story as part of the records for the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.
We then flip back to 1975 where we meet Roger East, a middle-aged independent foreign correspondent, almost a loose cannon in his way of operation. He is convinced by a young Jose Ramos-Horta to come to East Timor to head the country’s press agency and investigate the disappearance of five young Australian journalists.
The majority of the film switches between Roger’s search and the events experienced by the five journalists as they film the unrest in East Timor and Indonesian incursion into the town of Balibo. You know it’s coming, but when the journalists are hunted down and killed the scene is shockingly bloody and terrifying.
The actors were uniformly excellent, and the young men playing the journalists all had access to the families of the victims – in one case, even being presented with a pair of boots owned by Tony Stewart. For actress Bea Viegas in her first feature film, it was a chance to revisit her Timorese heritage and history.
It’s hard to say whether the Australian government could have actually done anything – after all, the Americans (Kissinger) supported the Indonesian invasion. However, the government’s insistence for years that the men were killed in cross-fire was clearly a cover up meant to keep the Australian-Indonesian relationship on an even keel. In the Q&A session after this premiere, the director Robert Connolly said that he had deliberately chosen to edit out political scenes set in Australia, which meant that the film placed the events in East Timor in the foreground and the film didn’t have the tone of a hectoring lecture on government policy. Nevertheless the film was a robust reflection on truth and politics and gives a human angle on the Timorese experience.
If you want to read more about the history behind the story, I recommend the section Film vs Reality on the film’s website. You can also read about Jill Jolliffe’s Living Memory Project, which aims to collect, preserve and catalogue testimony from Timorese political prisoners, to be held for future generations as part of East Timor’s national heritage.