Robert Connolly on Balibo

Features, FILM, Interviews
Director Robert Connolly talks about confronting East Timor’s fraught history in his new film Balibo, centred on five journalists murdered during Indonesia’s brutal invasion of the country.

East Timor’s story is one of the 20th Century’s most tragic. From its brutal Portuguese rule, to its enormous sacrifice for Australia that it made during World War II, to Australia’s current theft of its mineral wealth, its story is hardly one that shows the international community at its finest. That’s not even mentioning the brutal invasion by the Indonesians, who in 1975 invaded and occupied the country, resulting in a third of the population killed. Caught in the crossfire (metaphorically, not literally despite what the New Zealand and Australian governments argue) were five foreign journalists representing the Australian media—two Australians, two Brits, and a New Zealander—who were killed by Indonesian soldiers at Balibo. The five became known as the Balibo 5. However, there was another Australian journalist, Roger East who was also killed by the Indonesians, whose story was almost forgotten. East, the Balibo 5, and the East Timorese nation’s story is told in Robert Connolly’s powerful new thriller Balibo. The film has caused a stir in Australia, East Timor and Indonesia, and following screenings at the New Zealand International Film Festival last year, is currently in cinemas in New Zealand.

Connolly’s film contains three narratives. The first is a framing story that involves a young Timorese woman’s (Juliana) oral testimony of the events of 1975. The second focuses on the Balibo 5 themselves. The third is about Roger East (as played by Anthony LaPaglia). Connolly says: “My initial interest was the Balibo 5. I think, like a lot of people who don’t know much about East Timor, when you tell them there were these five guys in their 20s that went up there, the year the Vietnam War ended, and they were murdered, that becomes a point of entry. I must say, the more I journeyed to East Timor, the more that country went under my skin. And then you discover the tragedy there, more than two hundred thousand people died. It’s like ‘oh my god, there’s a killing field on our doorstep’.”

While researching, Connolly went through a mountain of material. He got a lot of help from the family members of the protagonists, the Timorese people, the President of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta, and the coincidental release of a lot of classified Australian government information (political documents are under a “thirty-year” classification rule). However, he found himself particularly drawn to Roger East’s story. “You could imagine, I’m writing this script about the five guys, and I discover there’s another journalist killed, and I knew nothing about it. It lifts off the page. I saw this photo of Ramos-Horta, and it’s a shot of him in 1975 on the wharf. I thought ‘what’s going on’. I’m researching Ramos-Horta in Darwin, and then I discovered that he met Roger East and he encouraged him to come over. The dramatic possibilities of having this started becoming clear. I wanted to surprise the audience with something in the film. I think Roger—[and] a lot of people go into the film knowing about the Balibo 5—is a real revelation. I fell in love with that guy. He was a battle-hardened, veteran journalist who was disillusioned, and he was reinvigorated by the opportunity to go there. He was the only journalist in the world to cover the invasion. Can you believe it? It’s staggering to me of all the foreign correspondents, that he was the only one, and that he lost his life for it. It’s pretty sad.”

Connolly also wanted to frame the Australian journalists’ narratives with a Timorese story. While arguably the least developed part of the film (it does feel a little tacked on), it also served to add hope to what is an otherwise dark historical tale. “I wanted to say ‘yes I’m a filmmaker making this story’, but the Timorese also told their story and came forward. I watched these interviews with Jill Jolliffe’s The Living Memory Project, interviews with a lot of Timorese women who were raped and tortured, and in their culture to come forward and talk about it on camera is very difficult. I was moved to tears by them, and thinking ‘gosh the courageous spirit of the East Timorese to come and tell their stories as part of the independence’. I wanted to capture that, to show that resilient spirit, and I wanted to end with East Timor becoming independent. I really worried and grappled about six white guys who get killed, two hundred thousand Timorese died. I hate that American cinema where it’s the hero’s journey—an American goes into the third world and saves the day. I needed a Timorese point of view. I had Ramos-Horta, but it wasn’t enough. And it was very late in the piece that I added the Juliana scene.”

That said, the film has attracted some controversy for its focus on the ‘white’ Australians rather than the East Timorese. Renowned Australian journalist John Pilger criticised the film for “ignoring” the East Timorese point of view, but also the collusion of the Americans, the Australians, and the New Zealand governments with the Indonesians. “I reckon that we got a good balance. The Timorese loved the film. We dubbed it into Tetum [the national language of East Timor], the first film ever, and we took it up to them and showed them. I added the Juliana story, and so many other Timorese were in the film, and Ramos-Horta. I think we certainly complicated the telling to a point that it acknowledged those conflicts and added elements and dimensions to allow that very issue to be fundamental to the film. I haven’t been criticised too much—I would have been savagely criticised if I had just made the Balibo 5 story. But the highlight of my year last year was taking it back to East Timor and playing it in the President’s palace on this big outdoor screen for thousands of Timorese in their language.”

“Everything we see is through the prism of the experience of Australians in the world. There’s very little international coverage that isn’t. I think it’s a pity that national significance is so important. Hence that moment at the end when Roger East says ‘I’m Australian’. But what does that mean? All these people are being killed. National identity is meaningless in the face of human catastrophe.”

Connolly also admits that he struggled with the ‘white’ Australian focus—so much so that it made it into the film as a scene between Roger East and Ramos-Horta characters. “I couldn’t work out my own feelings making the film with that same issue. And it was a great revelation—let’s let the characters work it out. What would they say? And so we created that scene where they fight out this very issue. It’s a big part for me, national interest in media reporting is something I’m fascinated by. Everything we see is through the prism of the experience of Australians in the world. There’s very little international coverage that isn’t. I think it’s a pity that national significance is so important. Hence that moment at the end when Roger East says ‘I’m Australian’. But what does that mean? All these people are being killed. National identity is meaningless in the face of human catastrophe.”

Balibo is the first feature film shot in East Timor, and Connolly pointed out that every department in the film employed East Timorese. The film also utilised local actors—many of whom had witnessed the atrocities of 1975 and beyond. Connolly also had amazing support from the East Timorese, whether it was Ramos-Horta himself, or villagers. “I couldn’t have made it without them.” Ramos-Horta helped Connolly throughout. “I was so nervous when I first met him—the Chinese have built him this huge palace, it’s really terribly ugly, but he lives in a very humble, traditional home. I went and had dinner with him. He was most interested in who was going to play him. He was like ‘I want George Clooney to play me’, ‘Antonio Banderas would be good’. We got on really well. He was very supportive. He said to me in that first meeting, [that] although the Balibo 5’s deaths were something he felt was a tragedy, Roger East was the one that he carried with him all his life, because he brought him there.”

Everyday people helped too. “That scene where the three women come down with the flowers, that’s a famous ritual that they do. Those women spent two weeks finding all the flowers because they wanted to do it perfectly, and find all the flowers and show how it’s done, and there was a great moment when they were lying in the mud, and it was this incredible moment in the film and the actor playing Ramos-Horta is walking through the mud—and then Ramos-Horta himself turned up, the presidential car turned up, and he’s watching this scene. Ramos-Horta walked all amongst these people buried in the mud, and I remember introducing these people to Ramos-Horta who were lying in the mud: ‘here’s the president of this country’. But for me, their storytelling skill made it possible. For the massacre, people came down for that scene who were there in 1975. For me, it’s like ‘God what am I doing here, why am I making them go through this trauma?’ They came down because the Chinese Timorese population were decimated in that massacre. Very early on, when people heard that we were going to do the death of Roger East in the film I was called from people in the Chinese Timorese community. They’re very secretive; they’re not very public. They said ‘we want to make sure that your film shows what happens to the Chinese Timorese in that scene.’”

I ask Connolly if he was worried about exploiting this or cautious of the history. He says: “I met the military chaplain in the Australian army, and he said ‘you’ve got to treat the East Timorese people where the entire nation has post-traumatic stress disorder. You can’t kill a third of the population in a country and not have that. Everyone’s lost someone’. It’s amazing how spirited they are as a nation.” There is, however, a palpable anger from Connolly at the treatment the East Timorese have received from the rest of the world, in particular the Australians post-World War II, despite the amazing sacrifice the East Timorese made for the Australians. “I can’t bear that story. There’s a scene not in the film—it’s a DVD extra—where Ramos-Horta and East talk about how in World War II we lost 40,000 Timorese defending the Australians. The Australian army, who [were] in the East Timorese hills, a hundred Australian soldiers—the Japanese offered money to the Timorese to betray the Australian’s positions, and they didn’t. They stuck by them. Australians dropped in these pamphlets—I’ve seen one, which says ‘we never forget our friends’. So this is the history. So in 1975, when Australia turned its back on them, it’s only thirty years later and allowing Indonesia to invade.” In fact, there is evidence of open collusion between Australia and Indonesia to get at East Timor’s mineral wealth (and it’s fair to say nothing has changed), which led to Australia tacitly supporting the Indonesian invasion. Connolly says the then US President Gerald Ford and Nobel Peace Prize winning Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta the day before Roger East and a hundred others were murdered and thrown into the sea, and approved of Indonesia’s invasion. Connolly also refers to the damage the Indonesians did when they left the country in 1999. “The first thing that happens when you arrive [in the capital Dili], is 90% of the buildings were destroyed in 1999. This is a country that Indonesia has occupied for 25 years, they leave 90% of the buildings destroyed: the entire infrastructure of the country. It just hits you, and you can’t believe. Schools, hospitals, libraries, power lines into places just melted from being. God they have made sure this nation will be on its knees for a generation.”

However, Connolly is hopeful that the film is a catalyst for change, both in Australia and Indonesia. “I think it’s been a great catalyst for discussion about the issue than you can ever imagine—the condemnation of the history, but also in a positive way. The Australian Federal Police launched a war crimes investigation only four weeks after the film was released. After thirty-five years. That’s not just the film which did that, but the film galvanised public opinion. And I think it’s corrected a lot of historical lies—consecutive Australian governments kept representing that they were killed in crossfire. The [current] Australian government didn’t even acknowledge the coroner’s findings. Then of course, it’s been banned in Indonesia and it’s playing there illegally now. That’s really such great irony—that the Indonesian government is quite happy to accept illegal DVD shops everywhere but the shops have allowed a whole generation of Indonesians to see a film the government don’t want them to see. I’m fairly optimistic about that—there’s a new generation of people, a new democracy who want to know the truth.”