Subject: Balibo: Two views of the films portrayal of history
August 16, 2009
A new film has opened political and cultural wounds. Author Paul
Cleary and filmmaker, Robert Connolly present two informed views on its
portrayal of history.
Like a western movie in which all of the baddies are “redskins”, the
only villains portrayed in the new Robert Connolly filmBalibo are
the Indonesians who did the killing, which means this dramatisation of
the murder of six journalists in East Timor in 1975 tells only half the
And instead of telling the whole story – drawing on a mountain of
records that reveal the diplomatic shenanigans – about two-thirds of the
film is pure fiction. Aside from the murder of the journalists, the rest
of the film is fiction and yet Connolly claims at the outset it is a
None of the Australians and Americans who had a hand in the events that
led to these murders – and the deaths of an estimated 183,000 Timorese –
are portrayed in the film.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who tacitly endorsed an Indonesian
takeover of the colony that Portugal was in the throes of abandoning,
gets a split-second mention.
The film's official website demands that the Indonesian officers
associated with the murders be tried for “war crimes”, but it does not
call for complicit Westerners to face justice.
US president Gerald Ford and secretary of state Henry Kissinger
sanctioned the full-scale invasion of East Timor in a meeting in Jakarta
with Indonesia's president Soeharto in December 1975. While the film
mentions the meeting, Connolly has not extended his war crimes demands
to Kissinger, a Nobel laureate who is still alive. Presumably this
wouldn't bode well for potential US distribution.
While there are oblique references to the shadowy role of the Australian
and US governments, the film pulls its punches by failing to name names
and reveal the dirty tricks played by key politicians and officials.
As a result, Balibo ends up heaping all of the blame onto
Indonesia and Indonesian people and demonising them along the way.
Balibo's most glaring omission, in both a historical and
theatrical sense, is the pivotal role played by officials in Australia's
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA, later DFAT) who agitated for an
Indonesian takeover, and became complicit in its execution.
The film overlooks the mountain of documents on Australia's involvement
in East Timor from 1974 to '76. Connolly and his co-writer David
Williamson claim they relied on the book Cover-upby journalist
Jill Joliffe, which is a fine book, but the film barely resembles it.
Nor does it reflect the revelations about DFA officials in the book
Death in Balibo, by Australian National University academic Des Ball
and Sydney Morning Herald journalist Hamish McDonald, which
reveals how senior officials in the Jakarta embassy, Malcolm Dan and
Allan Taylor, received detailed briefings on Indonesia's plan to
destabilise and invade East Timor.
The authors conclude that through this Jakarta embassy contact, Canberra
became “deeply complicit” in the invasion and did nothing to stop it.
The book reveals how on October 14, 1975, when the Seven Network
broadcast a report from its news team en route to the Indonesian border,
Australia's ambassador to Jakarta Richard Woolcott sent a cable to
Canberra outlining in detail Indonesia's plans to attack East Timor's
border towns, including Balibo. DFA could not have been unaware of the
Seven report given that it was broadcast in Canberra.
No one in the government contacted the Seven and Nine networks to warn
of the imminent danger. The reason? Ball and McDonald say that warning
them would have revealed that Australia had intimate knowledge of
The authors concluded: “This is a rare case where officials decided, in
peacetime, to sacrifice some of their fellow citizens to protect
security and intelligence interests.” At the very least, it is a case of
official negligence, failing to connect the intelligence with the known
movement of the journalists.
Connolly and Williamson have ignored the declassified cables that show
how Woolcott barracked for an Indonesian takeover and tacitly condoned
the use of force. In August 1975 Woolcott sent a cable to Canberra
arguing that Australia would get a bigger share of the oil and gas in
the Timor Sea if Indonesia controlled the territory.
In the same cable he took the audacious step of suggesting that a
minister could answer a question in Parliament or at a press conference
explaining the need for the use of force in Timor from Indonesia's
standpoint. While planting the seed, he also covered his backside by
recommending that the strategy not be used.
None of this illuminating material gets even the slightest mention in
Balibo, and nor does Woolcott, despite his controversial role in
Instead, Connolly spends a vast chunk of the film on a fictional journey
to Balibo by the sixth journalist, Roger East, and Jose Ramos-Horta.
This Hollywood approach to an important and sensitive part of history is
unfortunate and unnecessary. The Australian-born director Roger
Donaldson showed with his film about the Cuban missile crisis,
Thirteen Days, how cables and minutes of meetings can produce a
In an attempt to make the film appear historically accurate Connolly
appointed a so-called “consulting historian”, Dr Clinton Fernandes from
the Australian Defence Force Academy campus in Canberra, who claims that
“everything you see is accurate”. This is patently untrue.
Fernandes has explained how he went to great lengths to portray the
Indonesians who killed the Australians. He even researched the pistol
fired at the head of one of the journalists by the actor who played
Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, the commander of the Indonesian forces in East
Timor, and the safari suit he wore at the time. In reality, Kalbuadi
didn't pull the trigger – he was 10 kilometres away at the time.
This immense research effort into the Indonesians associated with war
crimes in East Timor, while omitting many other players in these events,
seems an entirely biased approach to portraying sensitive historical
Paul Cleary, a former adviser to the East Timor government, is a
journalist and author ofShakedown – Australia's Grab for Timor Oil.
He is writing a historical work on East Timor.
It is inevitable that the first feature film made about the events
that occurred in East Timor in 1975 will carry the responsibility by
some to address all the wrongs of this terrible time and the tragedy
that befell East Timor.
As filmmakers we have a tardy approach to exploring our nation's
history, with Gallipoli reaching screens almost 70 years after
the event and Breaker Morant taking even longer. That we are only
now debating the events that occurred in East Timor 34 ago later is
certainly a shame but inBalibo finally we have an opportunity to
broaden a much-needed robust discussion to many who know very little of
the events of this time.
There will always be issues to resolve in how to tell a story of this
contentious nature and we at all times grappled with one central
question while making the feature film Balibo.
How do you tell a story about the deaths of five Australian journalists
set against the tragedy of the deaths of as many as 183,000 East
Timorese during Indonesian occupation?
A number of jingoistic Hollywood films about white men saving the Third
World come to mind and while Paul Cleary may prefer a film set in the
corridors of Australian power about our country's appalling conduct
during this time, we chose a different approach. It was our view that
the film needed to take the audience to East Timor and to tell the story
from a point of view that captured the greater context of the deaths of
the journalists set against the personal tragedy that befell the
With this approach, we embraced the excellent work of Jill Jolliffe's
The Living Memory Project, which documents the experiences of
Timorese women who had been imprisoned; the powerful interviews with the
Timorese by the Timor-Leste Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
involved a wide range of Timorese actors whose performance Anthony
LaPaglia believes “raised the bar” for the Australian cast because of
their honesty and courage; and travelled to the real places, including
Balibo, to tell this story.
Does the film as a result speak of the larger political landscape and
culpability of those responsible? It certainly does. Baz Luhrmann and I
may have made two very different films this year but I share his view
that a filmmaker must value the audience's awareness and experience of a
film beyond the cinema through the discussion it prompts and debate it
This view respects the audience's ability to use a film as a springboard
to explore in detail the issues raised and in this case I encourage
anyone interested in the story to explore our consulting historian
Clinton Fernandes's excellent footnotes to our film at
balibo.com – it includes many of the
cables and documents referred to in Cleary's piece.
Already the film has generated a huge amount of discussion and media
attention, with the DFAT finally contacting the Balibo Five families
about repatriation three days before the film's world premiere, Richard
Woolcott coming out of hiding with his ridiculous assertions in the
media last week, and Geraldine Willesee's excellent opinion piece
identifying quite poignantly what happens when “good men do nothing”.
Even Cleary, through this newspaper, has been given a forum to promote
his views and work that he would otherwise not have had, if not for the
As you will discover with more scrutiny than Cleary has applied, there
is much in our approach that damns president Gerald Ford, Henry
Kissinger and Gough Whitlam for their roles in this tragedy. Only a
month ago I addressed the world media at the International Press
Institute conference in Helsinki and dealt with this very matter, a very
public position that stands in the face of Cleary's underhand contention
that I would soften my views for commercial gain. This clearly isn't
true as my work attests.
While Cleary would rather I stitched all the political elements together
for the audience, I would prefer to assume that the audience is
intelligent enough to join the dots themselves. The lowest common
denominator approach to cinema has served audiences poorly, as has a
genre of films that bludgeons an audience over the head with the
filmmaker's point of view.
In contrast with this, absorbing feature films such as The Killing
Fields, Salvador and Hotel Rwanda found a compelling
way to explore history and prompt a wider analysis without lecturing the
audience, and were a huge influence on our approach to Balibo.
The political thriller demands that characters lead the audience through
the drama, rather than merely attempting to articulate a didactic
polemic as Cleary would prefer.
For 34 years the truth of what happened to the Balibo Five has been
concealed from the Australian public. Finally, with the excellent
results of the NSW Deputy Coroner before the Federal Police, the film
due for release this week and two books recently published, the truth
may finally be acknowledged. It is certainly my hope that the film will
play a role in this. While Cleary may dismiss the priority in seeking to
make accountable those "who pulled the trigger", most would agree that
it's certainly a good place to start after all these years of silence
This month East Timor celebrates 10 years of independence, and a Tetum-language
version ofBalibo will screen in Dili on August 28. While there is
great tragedy in the story of the events that befell East Timor, there
is also great optimism and Balibo also celebrates the resilient
spirit of the Timorese people as they look to the future.
It is my hope that Balibo will play a part in telling the story
of this incredible country to a wider audience through the film's
personal, humanist ambition, rather than the lecture on the issues
Cleary would have preferred I made.
Robert Connolly is the writer and director of Balibo,
The Bank and Three Dollars. He was also the producer of
The Boys and Romulus, My Father.
Source: The Sun-Herald
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