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Balibo – the film

September 1, 2009

What to say about a film that is so close to the heart of Australia? Balibo is one of those films that leaves you sitting in the cinema for a while after it is over. This is not so much because it is stunning cinema but because of its emotional power.

East Timor (by Mats Halldin from Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons, CC-BY 3.0)

East Timor (by Mats Halldin from Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons, CC-BY 3.0)

For those who don’t know, the film tells the story of the disappearance in October 1975 of the Balibo Five and of the journalist, Roger East, who went looking for them soon after. The Balibo Five were five young Australian-based journalists who went to Balibo in Portuguese Timor (or East Timor/Timor-Leste)  to report on the worsening relations between that country and Indonesia which controlled the western part of the island.

The film chronicles two turbulent months from October to December 1975, and cleverly intertwines the story of the Balibo Five with that of Roger East’s search for them. The Balibo Five are shown to be young, idealistic, adventurous and, I have to say from the standpoint of today, a little naive. Roger East, who was lured to East Timor by Jose Ramos Horta to head up its fledgling news agency, was, on the other hand, an older man. He is conveyed as being, initially, a little unwilling to become involved in East Timor’s troubles but keen to find the young journalists. In the end, however, having discovered what had happened to the five, East remains in East Timor after all other western journalists leave. And that, as they say, is history.

The film, fittingly for its subject matter, has a documentary feel to it. It uses labels to situate us in the appropriate time and place. The story of the five journalists is presented using hand-held cameras and grainy archive-look images, which are intercut with actual archival footage and newspaper images of the time (repeating the technique used in that now classic Australian film Newsfront). And, framing all this, is (the recreation of) a present-day interview with a Timorese woman who met all six journalists when she was a young girl and they stayed at the hotel run by her parents.

The film is all the more powerful for what it doesn’t say – it doesn’t, for example, prosyletise on the inaction of the Australian government, nor does it rail against the Indonesian government. Rather, it tells its story through the horror of the events and the emotions of the people involved…conveyed convincingly by the cast involved.

Some call it a thriller. For me, though, it is too real and close to home to label it with such a “feature film” tag.  All I can say is that while it may not be the “best” film I’ve seen this year, and while the story may not be fully clear to international audiences, its emotional truth is real, and that is what I will remember when the details have faded.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2009 20:10

    In some ways I’m almost to scared to see this film, but I feel I must/should.

    Thank you for posting such a sensitively balanced review.

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      September 1, 2009 21:29

      Oops, Ms (Ex) English Teacher – hope you didn’t see the bad apostrophe in there. Fixed now!

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    September 1, 2009 21:26

    Thanks Steph…it is well worth seeing. but pretty gutwrenching EVEN when you know what happens. It took me a couple of days to write this – at first it felt the wrong thing to do, if you know what I mean!

  3. June 5, 2010 00:58

    Sounds like a tough film. Makes me think of the journalists recently murdered in the Philippines. Well then there are Iraqi journalists too.

    Well thanks, and now I wait for a release….

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