Subject: Jakarta Post - A ban that boomerangs back on us

The Jakarta Post

Sunday, December 06, 2009

By the way : A ban that boomerangs back on us

When I first saw the trailer for the movie Balibo about five months ago, it never dawned on me that this particular film would be causing such a stir today.

To be honest, I didn't consider that a film about East Timor from an Australian perspective would bring in the crowds. I expected it to have appeal only for curious crowds on the festival circuit, who wanted to know more about the mysterious deaths of five Australian journalists during the annexation by Indonesia.

I was also convinced that after doing away with East Timor in the best possible way - in a referendum, or "popular consultation" in Indonesian Military speak - I thought that we were ready to move on and develop a better relationship with our new neighbor of Timor Leste.

And as much as I admire the courageous work that journalist Jill Jolliffe did for the book Cover Up - which I read for my graduate thesis - on which the movie is based, it comes across as simply another commendable endeavor to connect the dots on what went wrong before, during and after the Indonesian occupation in 1975.

There has never been any dearth of materials in which students of East Timor's geopolitics can learn about some of the most deplorable acts that took place during the Indonesian occupation of the small territory.

And with the ushering in of the Reform era, any side of the story could be told, or so I thought.

It seems I was wrong. Balibo was banned by the Film Censorship Board on Tuesday, only hours before it was due to be shown in Jakarta and a week before it was to be screened at the Jakarta International Film Festival.

One member of the board said the movie was banned because it discredits Indonesia.

A military spokesman stated that screening the film would only hurt many Indonesians.

I am not quite sure which Indonesians he was referring to. But I suspect that he means the members of the military who perished in the territory subjugating the resistance movement, as well as some of those who did not.

This is an echo of the not-so-distant past. The argument that uncovering East Timor's shady past will do the fallen soldiers a disservice was the stance of the Indonesian generals when they opposed then president Habibie's decision to grant the East Timorese a referendum in 1999.

Or maybe the authorities are concerned about the less-than-flattering portrayal of the Indonesian side, without considering that audiences no longer take depictions at face value only.

Critics said the film provides simplistic portrayals of the "bad" Indonesians, in the form of the invading forces, and the good East Timorese. But when Michael Moore made a documentary on capitalism, could we really assume that a liberal such as he would paint a rosy, or even objective, view of capitalism?

Clint Eastwood did a good job in giving Japanese imperialistic ambitions a more humane face in Letters from Iwo Jima, but at the end of the day, it is a film about American heroism. After all, good Japanese soldiers depicted in the film are the ones who were trained in the United States.

And don't get me started on Michael Bay.

The point is that it would be too much to ask Balibo director Robert Connolly to paint a comprehensive picture of the event, when he was telling the story from the perspective of the journalists who were killed.

For more than 25 years, until East Timor broke away from Indonesia in 1999, the world was presented with the historical account conveniently written by a legion of army historians in Jakarta. The world's great powers apparently turned a blind eye toward the violent occupation of the province.

Australia, not wanting to jeopardize its amiable relationship with its neighbor to the north, officially agreed with the military account of the event, saying that the five journalists died in crossfire.

Deliberately or otherwise, by presenting an independent account of the Balibo incident, the film's producers have taken aim at the long- standing complacency about the deaths in both Indonesia and Australia. It would likely stir debate and raise some questions, but they would be limited in scope. And the ensuing dialogue could have helped bring some closure to the families of the dead journalists almost 35 years later.

But thanks to the ban, the film is making waves. Some Indonesians, who knew next to nothing about the deaths, are now curious to know exactly what happened all those years ago. In all likelihood, Balibo is poised to become another blockbuster, just because we tried to keep it under wraps.

- M. Taufiqurrahman


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