Shirley Shackleton Reviews 'Balibo'

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During the 35 years that have passed since the cold-blooded premeditated murder of my husband, Greg Shackleton, and four other journalists at Balibo in East Timor, at least 12 filmmakers have assured me that they were going to make the definitive film about the atrocity.

When RMIT started a screen-writing course in the mid-90s, I applied. Like many, I would like to write screenplays, so I was sincere in my endeavours, but there was an ulterior motive — if a film was ever made about East Timor, I did not want to be gauche if it departed from the truth on grounds of poetic licence.

A docudrama is not the same thing as a documentary.

For example, I loved The Dish because it sent up Australians with gentle affection — but it had little basis in fact and should be judged as a comedy. If you want to know the true story — which did, incidentally, involve a hell of a lot of drama — you can read the transcript of "Echoes of Apollo" from Radio National’s Science Show.

However — and it’s a big however — disillusionment can ruin the experience of the most successful docudrama if it departs too far from the facts.

I had enjoyed Arenafilm‘s The Bank so when Robert Connolly told me that he and co-director John Maynard were going to make a film based on the events at Balibo, I was initially pleased. When I saw another of their films, Romulus, My Father, I was delighted.

Unfortunately, when I read an early script of Balibo, all my film-writing training flew out the window. I thought it departed from the facts in some very alarming ways.

I won’t tear the script to pieces here because the joke was on me: when I finally saw Balibo, I was deeply apologetic. In fact, I would go so far as to say that what appeared to be ridiculous on paper worked on screen, and I would suggest that any student of film could learn a lot by studying the facts as against the fiction in this film. This is an easy task as Dr Clinton Fernandes, who was consulting historian on Balibo, has done a thorough comparison between the scenes in the film and the actual facts which he discusses here.

I initially planned to wait until Balibo came out on DVD as I simply could not watch it with an audience, but the manager of the Nova Cinema in Melbourne offered me a private viewing for which I thank him.

I cried a lot, starting with the first scene where the journalist Roger East (who is the film’s central character, played by Anthony LaPaglia) is on his knees at the Dili wharf. The image was so powerful that I was suddenly there. In another 15 minutes Roger — a healthy human being who loved life — would be shot like a dog.

There are those who claim Roger East was a Communist and an old hack when he decided to report East Timor’s unequal struggle for independence in 1975. In fact Roger East was a hero: he did the hard slog to find eyewitnesses and wrote the first believable reports of the murders of the Balibo Five.

I researched Roger’s life in the years after his death, and the more I discovered about this remarkable journalist, the more I admired him. Little insights like his manner of walking — he did not walk, he bustled — were endearing. He’d lived an adventurous life: he had faked his age to join the navy in World War II; he had reported from Cyprus, Greece, Kenya and Vietnam and he had covered the Suez Crisis from Cairo. He was always pretty good at standing up to implacable opposition as he proved by opening a newspaper right under the noses of the secret police in Franco’s Fascist Spain.

In the film, Roger is a man who is about to retire (which is true) and needs to be persuaded to go to East Timor (which is not true). Balibo‘s Roger East is not a faithfully represented Roger, but Anthony LaPaglia makes him believable and, more importantly, memorable.

Of course, Roger wasn’t the only Australian whose memory was denigrated after his death in East Timor. My son Evan was eight when his father was murdered in 1975, and it wasn’t until the opening of Balibo House in October 2003 that Evan said to me: "That’s the first time I’ve heard any official say anything good about my Dad."

I think Evan will be proud of Greg when he sees this film — as, finally, should the rest of Australia be proud of a journalist who pursued the awful truth when even our own government was trying to suppress it.

Greg’s last report — which relayed the East Timorese people’s desperate plea to the international community to stand up to the Indonesians and stop the invasion — can be viewed here, and stands testament to both his skills as a journalist and his incredible bravery. Robert Connolly was initially going to show this actual footage in the film, but the actor who portrays Greg, Damon Gameau, wanted to have a go at it. He did an excellent job.

I’m particularly grateful that Greg’s final piece to camera was included in the film because it showed how much he had been affected by the experience of the East Timorese people. Greg’s prophetic words — "they are men who know that they may die tomorrow and cannot understand why the rest of the world does not care" — have stayed in my consciousness forever because they unwittingly spoke to the fate of Greg and his colleagues.

Although the premiere of Balibo in Melbourne last month was a very sad experience for the families of the five murdered journalists, it was also a chance to meet wonderful people whose devotion to truth and justice for all the victims in East Timor was, and is, unflagging. It was the first time I’d had an opportunity to address Jose Ramos-Horta since his well-earned appointment: "Good evening, Mr President."

And the film also has moments of great joy: the actual scene of Jose Ramos-Horta’s return to East Timor after 24 years in exile will light up your evening. I thought my heart was going to explode when I saw heroic figures such as former Falintil commander Taur Matan Ruak with a smile as wide as the Sydney Harbour Bridge welcoming Jose back to his country after independence.

At the close of the film I said to the director, "Robert Connolly, I salute you."

Arenafilm and their crew have done Australians a great service in making this film. The story of the Balibo Five has now been told: generations who were not alive in 1975 will be better able to grasp the significance of this episode of our national history. In raising awareness about East Timor’s struggle for independence, Balibo asks us to reflect upon — and ultimately to care about — the fortunes of our closest neighbours. Not only will Australian audiences bear witness to the brutality and injustice of the murders of the Balibo Five, they will grapple with the events they were covering: Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 and the apparent indifference of the international community to this act of violence.

And this, finally, is the story that Greg and his colleagues were trying to broadcast in 1975.

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