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Australia 2009
Directed by
Robert Connolly
111 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Balibo

Synopsis: In 1975, the tiny island of East Timor is preparing for an Indonesian invasion. Five Australian journalists head over to cover the invasion for various TV networks, but then they go missing. Four weeks later the 25-year-old Jose Ramos Horta (Oscar Isaac) visits veteran journalist Roger East (Anthony La Paglia) and asks him to come to Dili to head up the news agency, tell the world about what is happening in Timor and to attempt to find out what happened to the missing journalists.

What a year for Australian film! Here is yet another locally-made film that stands head and shoulders above so much underwhelming imported fare that’s on offer in our cinemas.

As with most true stories we know the outcome of the events and yet throughout the film we feel a powerful suspense as we follow the path of first, the five journos, and then, Roger East. Perhaps this tension is due to the film’s clever narrative structure which opens in the present day when we see Timorese woman, Juliana, taking part in a Truth and Reconciliation hearing. As a young girl Juliana saw what happened on the day of the invasion and was witness to Roger East’s murder. The film then moves back to 1975 when the young and charismatic Horta visits East in Darwin and makes his proposition to him. By this time the Balibo Five are already missing and it seems no-one, including the Australian government, cares. We are then introduced to the five journalists: Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley), Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter), Brian Peters (Thomas Wright) and Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips)..

The film toggles between what the five men go through as they make their way into more remote territory towards the town of Balibo and Roger East’s experience on their trail about four weeks later. Slightly different grain film is used for each of these sections, giving them a sense of immediacy, as if we were experiencing a live-to-air news report. Equally, by using the stunning Timorese singing and music, along with shooting in the actual area in which the original events occurred, director Connelly creates a documentary-like realism for his story.

Balibo deserves to be seen by both lovers of fine film and those concerned with social justice. The fact that many taking part in this film actually were in Dili the day of the massacre on the pier is both awe-inspiring and poignant and indeed, the film as whole evokes overpowering emotions. Watching the journalists transform from men initially out to get a story to people deeply concerned about the welfare of an oppressed nation is inspiring, and so the film becomes more than a historical recreation but rather a story about ideals and issues that persist in today’s world. 

The bravery and determination of Roger East are powerfully captured in Anthony La Paglia’s performance, whilst Oscar Isaac is so eerily convincing that we feel that we are in fact seeing the youthful Ramos Horta. The remaining cast, especially the young men playing the five journos, all imbue their roles with passion (all five actors playing these parts spent time with the families of the murdered men to better portray their characters).

The emotional wallop this film packs will not be forgotten readily. Balibo is an important film, both as a historical account and as a homage to the bravery of journalists who sacrifice themselves in defence of  human rights.

 

 

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