Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac, Damon Gameau, Mark Leonard Winter, Gyton Grantley, Nathan Phillips, Thomas Wright, and Bea Viegas. Directed by Robert Connolly.
Rated M (violence and coarse language). 111 mins.
Based on the 2001 book, “Cover-up” by Jill Jolliffe, this film is a moving, and tense political thriller about five Australian journalists who were killed in Balibo, East Timor, following Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. It had its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and closed the Brisbane International Film Festival on August 9, where it won two jury awards.
The Balibo five were reporter, Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), and sound recordist, Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter) – both Australians; cameraman, Brian Peters (Thomas Wright), and reporter, Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips) from Britain, and both working for the Nine Network in Sydney; and New Zealand cameraman working for the Seven Network in Melbourne, Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley). The film shows the Balibo five being confronted by invading troops dressed in civilian clothes. They were unarmed, in civilian clothes, and had their hands raised in a gesture of surrender. In 2007, a coroner’s inquest in Australia concluded that there was incontrovertible evidence that the Indonesian forces intentionally killed the five newsmen, as they tried to surrender.
The story of their shooting begins and ends with the memories of Juliana (Bea Viegas), a Timorese woman who survived, and is told through the eyes of Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who was asked to go to Indonesia by a young Jose Ramos-Horta (wonderfully played in the film by Oscar Isaac) to start a news service to report the truth. East becomes preoccupied with what happened to the journalists. Officially, they were caught in “cross fire” in the invasion. East, who stayed on in East Timor, was killed violently later in 1975, when Jakarta launched a full scale attack on Dili.
The Director (Robert Connolly) brings a wealth of experience from past quality thriller movies, such as “The Bank” and “Three Dollars”, to present a gripping account of what happened to the journalists. The film aims to show fact, and pulls no punches. There is hardly a false sentiment or cliché in it, and the actors sustain utter realism in their roles. The documentary-style “flashbacks” look absolutely real, though we know they are not. Especially impressive are Oscar Isaac as a young Jose Ramos-Horta, and Anthony LaPaglia as East, in what must be one of his finest roles, and who took no acting fee. A core theme in the film is the turning of East from a jaded, burnt-out journalist to one with a Mission to discover and seek an alarming truth. This is a movie to shock and it is intended to shame, and its images are hard to forget. The direction is taut and tense. The camera work by Tristan Milani is outstanding; and the guitar-and-strings score of Lisa Gerrard exactly matches the visuals.
The film itself raises many questions. Why did Australia take no action to support the Timorese? Why did the Balibo five take the risks that they did in the name of “crazy, brave journalism”? They sent themselves to almost certain death, at the hands of the Indonesia militia, in order to expose the truth. Were their actions suicidal, idealistic, or did they have a naïve faith in a citizenship they thought deserved protection? The screen writing by Robert Connolly (the Director) and distinguished Australian playwright, David Williamson, doesn’t really answer those questions, but the scripting hints at some of the possibilities.
This film contradicts starkly the official version by both the Australian and Indonesian Governments that the journalists’ deaths were accidental, and there is enormous emotional validity to Shackleton’s final plea for someone in Australia - or anywhere - to help. Visuals shot on actual locations are used to electrifying effect; particularly impressive is a wide sweeping scene of the dead Timorese, their bodies littered through their ravaged village.
The film as a whole presents the deaths of the journalists in the fashion of a thriller, but involves the audience remarkably in events that have a timely, political and international significance. It is not an entertaining movie by virtue of its subject matter, but it is a very startling one with an extraordinary documentary-feel, and it raises profound questions about whether proper justice has been done for the Balibo five, Roger East, and the East Timorese people.
Footprint Films Out August 13, 2009
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.