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'Balibo' will stir painful memories for many

By Gary Neat - posted Thursday, 20 August 2009

Is the much hyped revival of Australian cinema finally with us?

First Rachael Ward’s Beautiful Kate and now Robert Connolly’s Balibo. Previously, we’ve been lucky to unveil a gem perhaps only once every two or so years - now we’ve landed two immensely emotional and bold pieces in a month.

Yet, because of Balibo’s noble message, and reasonably truthful telling, the resultant hype creates a temptation to overlook some of its failings. For instance, by trying to meld the connection between the deaths of the Balibo Five with the often overlooked death of a 6th journalist, Roger East, the filmmakers have over-indulged in “flashback”: a technique that detracts from the film’s narrative.


Unlike most films which purport to have an historical foundation, Balibo is both well researched and provocative. And, just for once, hand-held cameras are a real asset to the film’s impact.

The film’s key figure is Roger East - convincingly portrayed by Anthony LaPaglia. It’s ironic that as a seemingly reluctant Australian, LaPaglia’s two finest screen roles have both been Australian films - Lantana and Balibo.

Balibo is adapted from the excellent book Cover-Up by Jill Joliffe. Of course, how do you compact into 111-minutes of film a multilayered episode of history without sacrificing important details? The answer is you can’t without diluting the film’s commercial appeal. Balibo’s quasi-documentary style attempts to address this weakness but only succeeds to a point. There’s much finger pointing although no one queries why TV networks sent inexperienced domestic-based reporters into a war-zone in the first place.

Character development - apart from the LaPaglia role - is somewhat thin and it does drag in the middle stages, but the scenes of the newsmen’s deaths in Balibo and then East’s demise in Dili are nightmarish. In fact, many audience members will find them very unsettling.

As a young ABC foreign correspondent I flew into Jakarta within a week of the newsmen’s deaths in October 1975. I’d come from a year of covering conflicts throughout Asia and like most Asian-based correspondents saw the Timor conflict then as little more than a minor skirmish. But, the obvious cover-up surrounding the newsmen’s death galvanised us all.

When the Indonesians finally handed over the bodies of what they said were four of the newsmen plus some personal belongings they wrongly thought that the matter was closed. Thirty-four years on it’s still going strong - and Balibo will stir painful memories for many. When the bodies were handed over, I and another Australian correspondent were briefed at the official Jakarta residence of Australian Ambassador Richard Woolcott. I can clearly recall the normally urbane and unflappable Woolcott becoming agitated when quizzed about the obvious holes in the Indonesian cover-up. My reports back to Australia on the newsmen’s deaths were re-broadcast back into Indonesia via Radio Australia which led to me being harassed and assaulted.


Overall, Connolly’s production represents a milestone in Australian film-making. It espouses conviction thanks to an attention to detail, excellent lead actors and a strong moral purpose. It’s a story - still incomplete - of turmoil on our doorstep which successive governments have attempted to ignore in the interests of closer Australian-Indonesian relations - understandable perhaps when you remember that today’s democratically elected Indonesian government is a far cry from the brutal and repressive military dictatorship of 1975.

At the very heart of this film and indeed Australia’s reactions since 1975 is a search for answers - the answers that have always been there but which as a nation we haven’t really wanted to know.

Did we ever really buy the Indonesian line about the newsmen being caught in crossfire? And, do any of us really believe that the Whitlam government, with its then state of the art eaves-dropping capabilities, did not know what had really happened?

The Australian film industry can be proud of this film. Perhaps the “cover-up” would make a great sequel.

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About the Author

Gary Neat is a former National President of the Australian Institute of Management, a Behavioural Strategist and Company Chairman, a former Political and Foreign Correspondent and the Campaign Director of 20+ election campaigns. He also has a Masters Degree in International Management.

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