Subject: Balibo movie brings back memories for journo who escaped
Balibo movie brings back memories for journo who escaped
June 4, 2009
Two Australian news crews cross paths on a dirt road in East Timor, October 1975. One is fleeing the border town of Balibo. The other is racing toward it.
"It's crazy up there," the ABC's Tony Maniaty tells Channel Seven's Greg Shackleton.
"They started shelling us, the Indonesians.
"Listen, don't go up there, it's not safe."
Shackleton doesn't listen. He and his crew - Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart - climb back into their jeep and speed toward Balibo, and toward a grim fate.
A few days later, in the capital Dili, Maniaty delivers a similar warning to Channel Nine's Malcolm Rennie.
But Rennie too ignores Maniaty's warning. He and his cameraman, Brian Peters, head for Balibo.
Soon after, Indonesian soldiers pour across the border. Maniaty breaks the news that the newsmen - who would become known as the Balibo Five - are missing, feared dead.
"Why did they stay? The psychology of that moment, it still haunts me," Maniaty said.
Last year, Maniaty returned to East Timor to write a book about the making of Balibo, Robert Connolly's new feature film about the newsmen.
But the book, Shooting Balibo: Blood and Memory in East Timor, became much more than a behind-the-scenes look at the movie.
Jumping backwards and forwards through time, it's also about Maniaty's experiences in 1975, as Indonesia prepared to invade, and the memories stirred up by his return. It's an examination of the Balibo Five, and another Australian journalist, Roger East, also murdered by Indonesian forces in 1975. And it's also about East Timor as a nation; its history, its present problems, its future.
For Maniaty, returning to East Timor involved confronting ghosts that haunted him for more than three decades.
At least three times in 1975, Maniaty narrowly escaped death.
He now knows that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that, in those days, didn't have a name. He also suffered from survivor guilt: he escaped with his life, while his peers perished.
Returning to the house where the Balibo Five were murdered was the hardest, but also most cathartic, part of his return journey.
"I found that extremely unsettling, particularly being left alone in that room where they were killed.
"It was not hard to imagine those traumatic events.
"And the big realisation for me was I came so close to being in the same situation and barely escaped.
"It was a very powerful sensation.
"I felt I'd come full circle, I'd come back to the point where I'd left them, and in a sense, I closed that chapter in my life."
When Maniaty returned to Australia in 1975, he was approached by Roger East (played in the film by Anthony LaPaglia), a middle-aged man who wanted to break free of a mundane PR job and recapture his journalistic glory days by travelling to Timor.
"Listen to me," Maniaty told him. "Don't do it. You'll die if you do."
But East, too, ignored Maniaty's advice. Weeks later, Indonesian forces took Dili and shot East dead.
Maniaty says he doesn't resent the newsmen for ignoring his warnings and, in doing so, irrevocably changing his life. But he does harbour a lingering sense of frustration.
"I feel it most strongly with Shackleton, because we had just been shelled in Balibo, it was only an hour or two afterwards, when we met him.
"There was nothing I could do in that brief encounter to convince him to pull back with us.
"He just basically saw an opportunity to get up to a place where there was physical action happening and get the cameras rolling."
Even though Maniaty spent just a few minutes in Shackleton's presence, the Channel Seven journalist looms large in the book.
For Maniaty, Shackleton was a complex enigma.
"Even now I am no closer to understanding why he left himself, and perhaps the others, so exposed to the near-certainty of death at the hands of the Indonesians," Maniaty writes.
"My thoughts run up alleys with labels ranging from bravery and the quest for truth, to mild suicidal tendencies and blatant stupidity, but in none can I really find an answer, or even the beginnings of one."
Maniaty saw a final cut of the film last week and believes it does justice to the Balibo story. He hopes it will introduce the story to a new generation of Australians.
Maniaty, now a journalism lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, hopes young journalists in particular will take note.
While Maniaty believes the Balibo Five were brave, committed newsmen, he also thinks they were naive, and ill-prepared to report from a war zone.
"I really feel a strong responsibility to say to my students, `this is not how you do it'," he says.
"The Balibo Five story is a cautionary tale for young people rushing off to war in the hope of building their careers."
Shooting Balibo: Blood and Memory in East Timor, by Tony Maniaty, is on sale now.
Robert Connolly's film, Balibo, will premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival on July 24.