Subject: Film Review: Facing Balibo's Ghosts

The Courier-Mail (Australia)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Facing Balibo's Ghosts

By Fiona Purdon

A former journalist's return to the site of the massacre of five of his colleagues in Balibo sparked bitter memories and a determination to record the event, writes Fiona Purdon

"By going back to Timor and standing at the same spots I was exposed to all the demons''

BRISBANE media identity Tony Maniaty says he didn't cry when he revisited the Balibo site in East Timor where he almost lost his life in 1975. But he admits it was a close call as ghosts returned to haunt him.

Maniaty, a former ABC television reporter, was fired on by Indonesian troops at the Balibo fort on October 11, 1975. Five days later his colleagues Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart (Channel 7) and Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters (Channel 9) were executed by Indonesian forces.

Maniaty broke the news back home that the newsmen -- who would become known as the Balibo Five -- were missing, feared dead.

Last year, Maniaty returned to East Timor to write a book about the making of Balibo, Robert Connolly's new feature film starring Australian expatriate Anthony LaPaglia.

He also acted as a consultant on the film and found it difficult to watch a re-enactment of the death of his former colleagues during filming. It's all now detailed in his memoir Shooting Balibo: Blood and Memory in East Timor.

``They were shot at while trying to get footage, they were risking their lives to do this, and then they started running for it but they soon realised that Balibo was surrounded by soldiers,'' he says.

``This is just like what it really would have been like, I was taken back to 1975, I was getting upset. This was the scene I had re-lived many times.''

After Maniaty and colleague Jill Jolliffe broke the news of the deaths of the Balibo Five, he stayed in Timor another three weeks covering the story. But death threats, the continual threat of Indonesian invasion and exhaustion from working 15-hour days forced him to return to Darwin to recover.

Maniaty, who grew up in Brisbane, says the book helped him to find peace -- to decipher events that changed his life. The book, like his personal story, continuously jumps between 1975 and 2008.

``I was overwhelmed by a flood of memories from 1975 during that journey in 2008,'' he says.

``I was able to take some of that trauma out of my head and put it down on to paper, that is really the big outcome for me in writing the book.''

Maniaty, now a teacher in international journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney, says the memories were especially vivid at the Balibo fort -- where in 1975 he dodged mortar shells while delivering a television news report.

``By going back to Timor and standing at the same spots I was exposed to all the demons,'' he says. ``We were fired on at the fort. There were enormous blasts, the sound of artillery coming over your head, it was quite terrifying, I had never experienced anything like that.

``As a journalist I now understand what soldiers must go through in war and battlefield stress and shell shock.''

An hour after Maniaty's narrow escape from death, on the way back to Dili he saw Shackleton and the Channel 7 news crew. He warned them to turn around, but Shackleton wanted a taste of Balibo action and continued towards the fighting.

And Maniaty reveals he still harbours ``survivor guilt''.

``I still haven't found the answer but I've come to a better understanding over what might have happened,'' he says.

``We think (that when the Indonesian troops arrived) Brian Peters, the Channel 9 cameraman came out with his hands in the air, the internationally recognised sign for surrender, and he was shot.''

The other four men were then shot or stabbed near or in Chinese House, which is now burnt-out and roofless.

The Balibo Five incident changed the Australian media's approach to international war reporting and, says Maniaty, no journalist since has been so exposed to the frontline.

``The book shows how ill-prepared we were,'' he says. ``I certainly knew we weren't going to a peaceful country, no one pretended that, not even Fretilin. All of us reporters, Greg Shackleton, Malcolm Rennie and myself, none of us had been to a war zone, the closest we had been was reporting house fires.''

Maniaty first talked about the Balibo Five with Balibo director Connolly when the two were students at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney in 1993. Connolly was a production student and Maniaty was on a screenwriting attachment.

``Rob regularly came over to our house for dinner and at one dinner, after some red wine, we started talking about Balibo and the Balibo Five story,'' he says.

``Rob said then that it was going to be a feature film one day and the idea was planted in his mind before he had even finished film school.''

Maniaty says the film was only able to be made once the NSW Coroner Dorelle Pinch handed down her detailed findings in 2007. Those findings clearly established that the Indonesian Army had been responsible for the death of the five journalists.

He hopes the film will prompt the Australian Government to finally ask the Indonesian Government for an official inquiry into the incident.

The five men are buried in a single grave in Jakarta -- a situation which remains upsetting for all the families.

``The story doesn't die down because it's unresolved,'' he says. ``There's still a sense of deceit, dishonesty and cover-up about the whole issue.

``When I was back in East Timor last year there was a strong sense of reconciliation between Jakarta and Dili so it seems odd to me that the third component, Australia, is still in denial.

``We are still waiting for any of our political leaders in the past three decades to admit that as our country we made a serious mistake in East Timor.''

Shooting Balibo: Blood and Memory in East Timor, by Tony Maniaty (Penguin, $32.95).

Robert Connolly's film, Balibo, will screen at the Dendy Portside, Hamilton from Sunday July 26. It will also close the Brisbane International Film Festival on August 9.

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