In 1975, the small former Portuguese colony of East Timor (just an hour’s flight away from the north coast of Australia), declared independence. In December that year, Indonesia invaded East Timor while the rest of the world turned a blind eye. In fact, many details of the invasion and subsequent military occupation remained secret for two decades. It is estimated that over 180,000 East Timorese were killed during that period.
Written by David Williamson and director Robert Connolly from Jill Jolliffe's book Cover Up, Balibo tells this story through three plotlines, two based on fact and one fictional. At the beginning of the film, before the title card appears, we are in the present day. An Australian army officer takes the testimony of Juliana (Bea Viegas), a middle-aged East Timorese woman. Eight years old at the time of the invasion, she befriended Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), an Australian journalist who was staying at the hotel her father ran in Dili, the East Timor capital. East had been enticed out of semi-retirement by José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) to find out what had happened to five young journalists, working for two Australian TV networks, who had come to East Timor months earlier and had disappeared. They were reporter Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), , sound recordist Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter) and New Zealander cameraman Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley), working for Melbourne's Seven Network, and two Britons working for Sydney's Nine Network, reporter Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips),and cameraman Brian Peters (Tom Wright).
As Roger East and the “Balibo Five” were real people, it’s not a plot spoiler to say that what East uncovers is not a pretty picture. The five young men were murdered, but this was officially denied for many years. The official story was that they had been killed in crossfire. As East uncovers the true fate of the Five – which plays out in flashbacks within the flashback - it becomes clear that the invasion is imminent and that East himself is in very great danger.
There’s no denying that Robert Connolly’s film is a superbly made and powerfully affecting piece of work, put across with very committed work by all concerned. Williamson’s original script (rewritten by Connolly) apparently was much more forthright about the Western world’s (including the USA and the UK) connivance in the invasion, to the extent of arming the Indonesians. Australia’s part is briefly mentioned, though you could miss it with a moment’s inattention. (You are expected firstly to know that the Australian Prime Minister at the time was Gough Whitlam, and also to recognise him in a photograph standing next to Indonesian premier Suharto.) The film also barely touches upon the fact that the Western powers were keen to safeguard the oil and mineral reserves in East Timor, and feared that the Fretelin (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) might be Communist-influenced. How much of this should be included in a film is a perennial question, not least one that, for all its political overtones, is very much in the journalist-in-warzone genre (cf. The Killing Fields, Under Fire, Salvador and others). Other forms of dramatic licence are less contentious, such as the fact that Juliana is a fictional character, a composite of many such interviewees.
Given the complex structure – two timelines inside a framing flashback – it’s a credit to the filmmakers that the film is never confusing. Connolly and DP use different shooting styles and even filmstocks in the two main storylines. East’s scenes are shot in 35mm and, as Connolly points out in his commentary, conventionally blocked and edited. The flashbacks to the Balibo Five were shot in 16mm, using the cameras and lenses current at the time, documentary-style with the characters more centrally framed than at the sides of the frame as would be more usual. These sequences are also graded with a bluish tone. The only concession to practicality is that these sequences are in the same ratio as the 35mm footage – 1.85:1 – rather than the 1.33:1 that the real news footage would have been in. (You can see some of the genuine footage in the extras.)
José Ramos-Horta (well played by Oscar Isaac) represented East Timor in exile for over twenty years, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. With the liberation of East Timor, he was able to return to the country and became its second President in 2007.
Balibo is a film with considerable impact, and for many viewers that may be enough. You will almost certainly end the film angry at such flagrant injustice, especially when a final caption reveals that the murderers of the Balibo Five are still at large. But for some this is a film which will convey more heat than light.
Earlier this month, Balibo won three Australian Film Institute Awards, for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (LaPaglia and Isaac respectively). At the time of writing it has not yet had a British release.
Madman’s DVD release of Balibo comprises two dual-layer DVDs encoded for Region 4 only. (There is also a Blu-ray edition.)
The transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. This is pretty much what you would expect from a brand-new film, most likely transferred from a HD master, solid and colourful with strong blacks. Grain is natural and filmlike. Inevitably, given those scenes' 16mm origins, there is more of it in the Balibo Five flashbacks.
The soundtrack of choice is in Dolby Digital 5.1, with the dialogue mostly in English with some sequences in Tetun, the East Timorese dialect. This is quite an immersive sound mix, with music and sound effects well balanced with the dialogue. Ambience is strong, such as insect noises in certain scenes. As you might suspect, the invasion sequence has a lot of impact, though Connolly and his sound mixers at times deliberately drops the sound level or removes it altogether for added effect. Dolby Surround (2.0) soundtracks are also available in English and in what may be a DVD first, a Tetun dub. Subtitles are available for the feature only. As the alternative subtitle language to English is Bahasa Indonesia, you do wonder how widely this film will even play in that country.
Robert Connolly provides a commentary. This confirms a feeling I had when I reviewed Connolly’s debut feature The Bank (which also featured Anthony LaPaglia in a leading role). Connolly is clearly a very self-aware filmmaker, and one very conscious of his audience’s expectations and how to manage them, especially as regards to genre. He goes into detail about the making of the film and the techniques used, some of which I have summarised above. He also passes on information about the historical events which may likely bypass viewers of the film itself.
Disc One is concluded with the theatrical trailer for Balibo (2:22) and Madman Propaganda, namely trailers for Last Ride, Wake in Fright,.Love the Beast and My Year Without Sex. The latter has a Play All option and is prefaced with the “We all like to see a good Aussie film” anti-piracy notice.
The remaining extras are on Disc Two. They begin with nine deleted scenes. These are “McGuire – 'Bill's New House'” (2:02), “Grilled Fish” (0:29), “Turismo Drop-Off” (0:41), “East Timor News Agency” (1:44), “A Bond Signed in Blood” (1:09), “Paradise” (1:08), “Escape” (1:22), “Shackleton Interviews Ximines” (0:52) and “Sabika and Peters” (1:05). There is a Play All option.
There follows an extensive (34:57) making-of documentary. This follows the usual form of interviews with principal cast and crew, combined with behind-the-scenes footage and extracts from the finished film. Inevitably there's some duplication with the next item, a series of six short featurettes. These are “Creating the Balibo Five” (8:34), “Roger East and José Ramos-Horta” (6:48), “Perms, Polyester and Short Shorts” (9:10, about period costume design), “Death of the Balibo Five” (7:50), “Doco vs. Drama” (7:50) and “History of East Timor and Balibo” (7:10). Again, there is a Play All option.
Finally, you can see Greg Shackleton's original news reports from East Timor (18:01), which shows how accurate a recreation the film is. The extras are concluded with a study guide in PDF format and more Madman Propaganda, here trailers for The Bank, Romulus, My Father, Look Both Ways and Three Dollars.