Subject: Shirley Shackleton Reviews 'Balibo', and more

also Was The General Really There?; Balibo – a review 

New Matilda

12 Aug 2009

Shirley Shackleton Reviews 'Balibo'

By Shirley Shackleton

Shirley Shackleton wondered whether the truth of her husband's murder could ever be communicated to Australian cinema audiences. This is her response to Balibo

During the 35 years that have passed since the cold-blooded premeditated murder of my husband, Greg Shackleton, and four other journalists at Balibo in East Timor, at least 12 filmmakers have assured me that they were going to make the definitive film about the atrocity.

When RMIT started a screen-writing course in the mid-90s, I applied. Like many, I would like to write screenplays, so I was sincere in my endeavours, but there was an ulterior motive ­ if a film was ever made about East Timor, I did not want to be gauche if it departed from the truth on grounds of poetic licence.

A docudrama is not the same thing as a documentary.

For example, I loved The Dish because it sent up Australians with gentle affection ­ but it had little basis in fact and should be judged as a comedy. If you want to know the true story ­ which did, incidentally, involve a hell of a lot of drama ­ you can read the <>transcript of "Echoes of Apollo" from Radio National's Science Show.

However ­ and it's a big however ­ disillusionment can ruin the experience of the most successful docudrama if it departs too far from the facts.

I had enjoyed <>Arenafilm's The Bank so when Robert Connolly told me that he and co-director John Maynard were going to make a film based on the events at Balibo, I was initially pleased. When I saw another of their films, Romulus, My Father, I was delighted.

Unfortunately, when I read an early script of Balibo, all my film-writing training flew out the window. I thought it departed from the facts in some very alarming ways.

I won't tear the script to pieces here because the joke was on me: when I finally saw Balibo, I was deeply apologetic. In fact, I would go so far as to say that what appeared to be ridiculous on paper worked on screen, and I would suggest that any student of film could learn a lot by studying the facts as against the fiction in this film. This is an easy task as Dr Clinton Fernandes, who was consulting historian on Balibo, has done a thorough comparison between the scenes in the film and the actual facts which he discusses <>here.

I initially planned to wait until Balibo came out on DVD as I simply could not watch it with an audience, but the manager of the Nova Cinema in Melbourne offered me a private viewing for which I thank him.

I cried a lot, starting with the first scene where the journalist Roger East (who is the film's central character, played by Anthony LaPaglia) is on his knees at the Dili wharf. The image was so powerful that I was suddenly there. In another 15 minutes Roger ­ a healthy human being who loved life ­ would be shot like a dog.

There are those who claim Roger East was a Communist and an old hack when he decided to report East Timor's unequal struggle for independence in 1975. In fact Roger East was a hero: he did the hard slog to find eyewitnesses and wrote the first believable reports of the murders of the Balibo Five.

I researched Roger's life in the years after his death, and the more I discovered about this remarkable journalist, the more I admired him. Little insights like his manner of walking ­ he did not walk, he bustled ­ were endearing. He'd lived an adventurous life: he had faked his age to join the navy in World War II; he had reported from Cyprus, Greece, Kenya and Vietnam and he had covered the Suez Crisis from Cairo. He was always pretty good at standing up to implacable opposition as he proved by opening a newspaper right under the noses of the secret police in Franco's Fascist Spain.

In the film, Roger is a man who is about to retire (which is true) and needs to be persuaded to go to East Timor (which is not true). Balibo's Roger East is not a faithfully represented Roger, but Anthony LaPaglia makes him believable and, more importantly, memorable.

Of course, Roger wasn't the only Australian whose memory was denigrated after his death in East Timor. My son Evan was eight when his father was murdered in 1975, and it wasn't until the opening of <>Balibo House in October 2003 that Evan said to me: "That's the first time I've heard any official say anything good about my Dad."

I think Evan will be proud of Greg when he sees this film ­ as, finally, should the rest of Australia be proud of a journalist who pursued the awful truth when even our own government was trying to suppress it.

Greg's last report ­ which relayed the East Timorese people's desperate plea to the international community to stand up to the Indonesians and stop the invasion ­ can be viewed <>here, and stands testament to both his skills as a journalist and his incredible bravery. Robert Connolly was initially going to show this actual footage in the film, but the actor who portrays Greg, Damon Gameau, wanted to have a go at it. He did an excellent job.

I'm particularly grateful that Greg's final piece to camera was included in the film because it showed how much he had been affected by the experience of the East Timorese people. Greg's prophetic words ­ "they are men who know that they may die tomorrow and cannot understand why the rest of the world does not care" ­ have stayed in my consciousness forever because they unwittingly spoke to the fate of Greg and his colleagues.

Although the premiere of Balibo in Melbourne last month was a very sad experience for the families of the five murdered journalists, it was also a chance to meet wonderful people whose devotion to truth and justice for all the victims in East Timor was, and is, unflagging. It was the first time I'd had an opportunity to address Jose Ramos-Horta since his well-earned appointment: "Good evening, Mr President."

And the film also has moments of great joy: the actual scene of Jose Ramos-Horta's return to East Timor after 24 years in exile will light up your evening. I thought my heart was going to explode when I saw heroic figures such as former Falintil commander <>Taur Matan Ruak with a smile as wide as the Sydney Harbour Bridge welcoming Jose back to his country after independence.

At the close of the film I said to the director, "Robert Connolly, I salute you."

Arenafilm and their crew have done Australians a great service in making this film. The story of the Balibo Five has now been told: generations who were not alive in 1975 will be better able to grasp the significance of this episode of our national history. In raising awareness about East Timor's struggle for independence, Balibo asks us to reflect upon ­ and ultimately to care about ­ the fortunes of our closest neighbours. Not only will Australian audiences bear witness to the brutality and injustice of the murders of the Balibo Five, they will grapple with the events they were covering: Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the apparent indifference of the international community to this act of violence.

And this, finally, is the story that Greg and his colleagues were trying to broadcast in 1975. 


New Matilda

12 Aug 2009

Was The General Really There?

By Clinton Fernandes

Not all the scenes depicted in Balibo correspond exactly to the tragic events of 1975. Clinton Fernandes, the film's consulting historian, explains why

In October 1975, the Indonesian military was conducting a terror and destabilisation campaign in the border regions of East Timor. Its aim was to generate atrocities that could be falsely attributed to pro-independence East Timorese forces. It would then be able to invade under the pretext of "restoring order".

Five journalists employed by Australian TV stations went to East Timor to cover the conflict. If the journalists had obtained film footage of the military campaign and conveyed it to the outside world, the Indonesian military's cover story would have been blown. The five were killed within days of arriving at the border town of Balibo. A sixth journalist, Roger East, was killed a few weeks later in front of more than 100 witnesses.

In 2007, a coronial inquest established that the five journalists ­ Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart ­ clearly identified themselves as Australians and as journalists. They were unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes. They had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender. They were killed deliberately on orders that emanated from the highest levels. Their corpses were dressed in uniforms, guns placed beside them, and photographs taken in an attempt to portray them as legitimate targets.

I was consulting historian for the film Balibo and I was fortunate to work with director Robert Connolly, who was committed to historical accuracy. Audiences unfamiliar with the events of 1975 may wonder at their relationship to Connolly's film. Although Balibo is based, as its opening credits declare, on a true story, there are certain discrepancies between the events depicted in the film and the historical record. These do not compromise the historical claims made by the film, however, as an examination of some key differences between the film and the record reveal.

The film begins and ends with an East Timorese character, Juliana. The first words spoken are in Tetum, and the first name heard is an East Timorese name ("Mazarella"). The interviewee, Juliana da Costa, is not an historical figure but a composite character derived from the extensive work of the <>Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. The Commission, known by its Portuguese initials CAVR (A Comissao de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliaçao) was established as an independent statutory authority in July 2001 by the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor. It was mandated to inquire into human rights abuses committed by all sides between April 1974 and October 1999.

Juliana appears both as a child in the Hotel Turismo in 1975 and as an adult providing a statement to the CAVR. Her statement to the interviewer not only provides a rationale for the film's flashbacks, it serves to reflect the activities of the Commission ­ some 7,824 statements were collected from the 13 districts and 65 sub-districts of East Timor. This excerpt from the CAVR's <>Final Report describes the Commission's methodology:

"Deponents gave their statements in narrative form. Thus they were able to tell their stories in their own words rather than be guided by a series of questions. This method was chosen because it encouraged deponents to provide a richness of detail and background information about violations and the circumstances surrounding them. This procedure also tended to be less intimidating for those unaccustomed to being questioned in official settings ... "The statement-taking program allowed any individual who wished to do so to approach the Commission and to report information relating to the political conflict. The expectation was that by throwing such a wide information net across the districts, a significant amount of information about all aspects of the 25 years of political conflict would become available. Analysis would then allow a clear picture of what had occurred to emerge. This broad, untargeted approach meant that information was received about all aspects of the political conflict, including events or circumstances that had not been previously widely known ..."

Just as the adult Juliana da Costa serves to typify the process of truth-seeking, the child who appears in the film stands as the emblem of Indonesia's failure to fulfil its duty of care towards the children of East Timor. The CAVR found that children in East Timor "experienced the full range of human rights violations". It concluded that the "overwhelming majority of these violations were committed by the Indonesian military and their auxiliaries. These forces killed, sexually violated, detained and tortured, forcibly displaced and forcibly recruited children."

The film departs from recorded events significantly in a prolonged poolside confrontation between Jose Ramos-Horta and Roger East about whether or not to continue the search for the missing journalists. This scene is entirely fictitious. It was written into the movie partly to confront the audience with an obvious question: why care so much about five journalists when so many East Timorese are dying?

The fact is that those who campaigned ­ and still campaign ­ for justice for the Balibo Five also campaigned for the independence of East Timor. The journalists were murdered because they were trying to tell the world the truth about East Timor. Manuel da Silva, a Fretilin soldier who was one of the last to leave Balibo on 16 October 1975 subsequently told the coronial inquest: "The reason why I came to be a witness was that I believe that the journalists are martyrs for East Timor and I believe they are East Timorese as well."

As for the real Roger East: he was a thoroughly committed person who ­ as the real Jose Ramos-Horta acknowledges ­ was "driven by a profound sense of mission". To this end, it is worth quoting at length from Horta's 1987 memoir, The Unfinished Saga of East Timor:

"I had told Roger about my idea of setting up a news agency, to be called "East Timor News Agency" or simply ETNA. I viewed such an agency as an indispensable instrument of the struggle ... To launch ETNA, I worked out a simple scheme: I arranged an exclusive interview for Roger with six Fretilin soldiers who had been in Balibo and actually witnessed the fall of the town and the killing of the five Australian newsmen by Indonesian troops. No other journalist had such a privilege, and Roger scooped everybody else. The next day, his bylines were featured front-page in most Australian newspapers, and ETNA began to be quoted ... "In the days before the invasion, when all other foreign correspondents had left the country, Roger was flooded with requests for stories. Even the Sydney bureau chief for Reuters phoned Roger, pleading with him to be their special correspondent. I was with him at the time and heard him saying, 'I will file for you, but I am doing it for the Timorese, not for you.' "Roger was driven by a profound sense of mission. He was not a Fretilin partisan as his detractors claimed. He cared about the Timorese and felt very strongly that the Australian public ought to know the truth. He was angry at his government's cowardice and connivance with Indonesia."

In the film, Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, the overall commander of the Indonesian forces in East Timor, is depicted in the thick of the action at Balibo and appears as a participant in the killing of the Balibo Five. Even though his dress in the film is based on his actual clothing from that time, Kalbuadi was not at Balibo when the journalists were killed ­ he was in his tactical headquarters approximately 10 kilometres away. He flew in by helicopter immediately after Balibo had been captured.

The film shows him participating in the killing in order to highlight an important legal conclusion reached by the Coroner: "There is strong circumstantial evidence that Colonel Dading Kalbuadi gave orders to his field commanders that anyone found in Balibo was to be killed, including the five journalists."

She continued, "I am satisfied on the totality of the evidence that Colonel Dading Kalbuadi was aware that the journalists were in Balibo prior to the attack on 16 October and that he subsequently disclaimed any knowledge of their presence in order to distance himself from his actions based on that knowledge, including orders to kill them, to destroy their bodies and to engage in an orchestrated cover-up of the circumstances of their deaths."

The wilful killing of the Balibo Five was a war crime. War crimes can be prosecuted wherever they occur and regardless of the nationality of the victims or perpetrators. There is no statute of limitations. This means that the alleged killers of the Balibo Five can be prosecuted in Australia following extradition from Indonesia. Since the killings were associated with, and occurred in the context of, an international armed conflict, the case was referred to federal authorities for possible war crime prosecutions in 2007.

A week before the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd responded to the Balibo coronial inquest with the following words, "This is a very disturbing conclusion by the coroner concerning the fate of the Balibo Five back in 1975. I believe this has to be taken through to its logical conclusion. I also believe those responsible should be held to account."

He also <,27574,22774396-1702,00.html>said, "My attitude to this is dead set hardline. I've read a bit about what happened in Balibo, I've been to Balibo, walked up there, I've seen the fort, I've seen where these blokes lost their lives. You can't just sweep this to one side."

A more exhaustive analysis of the relationship of the film <>Balibo to the events of 1975 by Clinton Fernandes can be found <>here .


<>Balibo – a review

Filed Under <>Movies <>on August 12, 2009 • <>View comments<> Comments

As prefaced in <>this post, this review has been quite difficult to put together. I generally find the more I love something or the more I relate to it, the harder it is to passionately and eloquently convey that feeling in words.

What I want to ensure is that whilst I will briefly describe why this film is close to my heart; the review itself will be as objective as I can write it. This is because it deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible; with or without knowing about my own personal connection.

I was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1981. However, my mother and two older sisters were born in East Timor, where my Mum met my Portuguese father who had gone to East Timor in 1969 to join the resistance. My father was a part of Fretilin, where he fought alongside Jose Ramos Horta and many others against the advancing Indonesian militia. Besides Horta, my father was one of the few who spoke English quite well, and spoke publicly on behalf of the East Timorese, and the freedom fighters fighting to keep this small country safe.

Whilst the story of the Balibo Five, as they were collectively known, is close to Australia’s heart, the film manages to convey it in an open manner, so that it can resonate with an international audience.

A major flaw of many Australian films is that they seemingly try so hard to convey the ‘uniqueness’ of Australian living, or stereotype it so massively that it polarises and antagonises any audience outside of the Australian coastline. The fact that this film manages to overcome that stereotype is such a relief.

Robert Connolly, and co-writer David Williamson treat the story of the Balibo Five with sensitivity, having researched it closely with historians, and consultants that know their subject matter.

The movie does not hold back in portraying what most people outside of Government understand; that these journalists were gunned down not by accident, but with the Indonesian militia fully aware that they were journalists trying to make the world aware of what was happening in this small and troubled nation.

The ensemble cast is led by Oscar Isaac (Body of Lies) in the role of now President Horta, and Anthony LaPaglia (Without A Trace) as Roger East – the sixth and lesser known journalist who travelled to East Timor to investigate the disappearance and murder of the Balibo Five.

LaPaglia, who played a key role in bringing this story to screen is strong, yet understated in playing a jaded journalist, close to retirement that does not think he’s got the stamina to be tracking down missing journalists. Despite his attachment to the film and lead role; the ensemble itself immerse themselves in their roles. Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton had the possibly tougher role in portraying the best known of the five; his iconic editorial pieces still representative of the loss felt by their families, and Australia as a nation in 1975.

For Gyton Grantley and Nathan Phillips as Garry Cunningham and Malcolm Rennie respectively, setting aside the notoriety that came from appearing in Underbelly or Snakes on a Plane instilled more of a pressure on them to portray the journalists in the best possible manner. Cast and crew subsequently have acknowledged that being in Dili, being the first feature film to be shot there has been life changing. The five actors stayed in the same place of those they depict – making it more than blindly reading from a script. This was real; there was a real loss, felt by more than one nation.

This sensitive characterisation as the young, passionate journalists are so believable and so intrinsically nuanced and considerate to the story that the viewer is with them. In Dili, in Balibo with their wide-eyed excitement and sense of adventure we are there with them thanks to an authentic looking 1970s East Timor and Darwin backdrop, shot by Tristan Milani (The Bank, Three Dollars)

With an authentic, and stirring score – contributed to by the wondrous Lisa Gerrard (whose hauntingly distinctive voice has featured in Black Hawk Down, Man On Fire, and Ali to name a few) – this has to be the most compelling, confronting Australian films I can recall.

Aside from personal association, and the memories of family and stories conjured by those directly related to the production of this film; it’s a hard movie to watch. For all the right reasons.

For more on the production and background information, visit the official website here – the film opens nationally on August 13.

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