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:: Balibo

Part political thriller, part docu-drama, and part action film, Balibo is perhaps the best Australian film produced in recent years. Director Robert Connolly’s retelling of the events that led to the death of five Australian journalists in East Timor during the 1975 Indonesian invasion is ballsy and masterful - a brilliant tribute to both the journalists that lost their lives and the people of East Timor.

The narrative is told largely through the eyes of Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia). A former foreign correspondent, East is now a PR consultant whose meaningless existence consists of greasy food, beer and the occasional bit of spin. He is roused from his sluggish daze by a young and charismatic Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaacs) who has travelled to Darwin to convince him to head up the newly created East Timor News Agency in Dili. Initially unenthusiastic about the position, East’s journalistic interest is piqued when Horta tells him that five Australian journos have gone missing in Balibo, yet the Australian government has done nothing to find them. East agrees to Horta’s offer on the condition that Horta helps him locate the Australians first.

As East begins his journey, we flash back to the Balibo 5 in the days before their disappearance. Connolly artfully shows us glimpses of their lives in Australia, highlighting their youth and humanising them in such a way that makes their eventual fate truly poignant and heartbreaking. We, as they, are at first lulled into a sense of complacency. Although there is talk of an invasion and a clear military presence, all seems relatively calm in Dili and its surrounds. It is not until a shell explodes just metres away from Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau) while he is filming a story that we grasp the true danger. It is here too that we first appreciate the grit and courage of these men, and gain a sense of how deeply they have come to care for the East Timorese people. What also becomes evident is that, despite their bravado, underpinning all their actions is their devotion to their work and a fierce desire to uncover the truth.

Connolly and co-writer David Williamson pace the film perfectly, the tension steadily rising as East’s search continues. A testament to Connolly’s film-making abilities, and the brilliant cast, is that although we know the ultimate fate of the Balibo 5, we become so engrossed in the story and the plight of the characters that we begin to hope—perhaps East will be able to defy history after all. Once he has raised our hopes, Connolly crushes them in a death scene that is at once tragic, horrendous and profoundly moving.

Thanks to LaPaglia’s impeccable performance, Roger East’s death affects us in a similarly way. A highly flawed and multifaceted man, East is a difficult character to like; yet LaPaglia paints East’s internal struggle so vividly that we are able to relate to him. East’s transformation from jaded, apathetic sloth to determined, gutsy human being, concerned only with saving lives and exposing the truth, is astounding.

East Timor is only an hour’s flight from Darwin and yet, to most Australians, it may as well be on the other side of the world. With Balibo, Robert Connolly puts East Timor in plain view - he makes us see the struggle of the East Timorese people, see the thousands killed during the occupation and see that our histories are inextricably linked. This is a superb piece of Australian cinema that every Australian should see.