Balibo: Timor finds a voice

BaliboIt’s been 34 years since the Indonesian invasion at Balibo when five Australian-based journalists went missing, and it’s now up to our filmmakers to make this story heard. Laine Lister reports.

Less than 700 clicks off the coast of Darwin, Balibo director and writer Robert Connolly is uneasy.

He is visiting East Timor to screen his political thriller, which plots the modern history of the south-eastern Asian nation, to its president Jose Ramos-Horta.
“Can you imagine how nerve-wracking that was?” he bursts out laughing as he recalled his feelings at the time.

The Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and exiled spokesman for the East Timorese resistance during the years of the Indonesian occupation (1975-1999) took a keen interest in Connolly’s film from its inception.

“Whenever I was in Timor, the trip always involved an invitation to his house,” said Connolly.

A young Ramos-Horta – played by actor Oscar Isaac – features heavily in the historic film. Partly set in 1975 (and flicking between present day), Indonesia is preparing to invade as five Australian-based TV journalists go missing. The 25-year-old Ramos-Horta travels to Australia to lure veteran foreign correspondent Roger East to East Timor to tell the story of his country and investigate the fate of the missing men.

During filming in Balibo – a town set 10kms from the Indonesian West Timor border – Ramos-Horta arrived on set to watch.

“I’ve got Oscar Isaac who plays Ramos-Horta standing with the real Ramos-Horta. To be dealing with real historic events while these people are still alive is a career highlight,” Connolly said.


Another highlight for Connolly was the opportunity to work in East Timor, where the small Australian cast and crew were welcomed wholeheartedly.

“It was an absolutely wonderful adventure and one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was a real privilege to go into a country and have them open their doors to us and allow us access to their nation and help us to tell their story,” he said.

Connolly and the Arena Film team employed a large Timorese crew and part of their philosophy was to train the local people in the filmmaking processes so that they could tell their own stories.

Connolly worked with Timorese trainee director Alex Tilman and some of Tilman’s Timorese colleagues assisted in camera operation and in the art departments during the making of Balibo. Connolly insists that their input gave the film an authenticity in shoot that it might not have otherwise had.

“There were scenes where we could ask the Timorese what would’ve happened in ’75, who would’ve been there, how would people have been acting, would they have been wearing this and what song would they have been singing in this scene?

“That layer of contribution can’t be underestimated in the film and the Australian crew that we brought over there all were incredibly open to that,” he said.

But working in Timor was not without challenges and local conditions meant Connolly was forced to rethink his entire filmmaking methodology. He replaced his traditionally “rigid” style with a more relaxed and natural approach, he explained.

“There were times that I’d call ‘action’ and really didn’t have any idea what was going to happen in front of the camera so I’d be standing back watching the drama unfold in a way that I loved rather than rehearsing it to death and approaching it with a rigid style of coverage.”

And he hasn’t looked back.

“That way of working is so liberating as a filmmaker,” he said. “I could never turn back from it now”.

The film was stalled slightly in February 2008 when an assassination attempt on Ramos-Horta raised new safety concerns. The Australian Government had issued a level four travel warning for travellers to the region meaning insurance was more difficult to obtain.

Balibo co-producer (with Rebecca Williamson) John Maynard of Footprint Films insisted, however, that the crew’s safety was never compromised. Challenges instead came in the form of a language barrier; a lack of infrastructure in the country; and limited accommodation available for cast and crew.

Balibo will be Connolly’s second stab at opening night – his first film The Bank(also starring Anthony LaPaglia) was selected to open MIFF 2001 – and it’s just as exciting an opportunity, he insists. He received funding for both films through the MIFF Premier Fund. Balibo also received funding from Arena Film, Cinimod Films, Content International, Film Victoria, Last Straw Productions, Screen Australia, Showtime Australia and private investors including LaPaglia.

When the film is released in Australia on August 13, Connolly hopes the story of the Balibo five will resonate with Australian audiences as it did with investors.

“Many Australians will want to know what happened to the Balibo five; it’s been hidden from us for many years. The film represents what I believe from all the sources, interviews and coroners findings that that’s what happened and I hope Australians will want to see it if only for that reason,” he said.

What about Ramos-Horta? “He loved it. That’s a great relief to me”. ■


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.