After managing to miss this film at the cinemas, I finally got around to hiring it on DVD yesterday evening. Based on the book of the same name, by journalist Jill Joliffe, the film elegantly traces what is held to be a more factual description of the fate of the “Balibo Five” than the official version of events, which is that the five men died in crossfire in East Timor in late 1975. According to Joliffe’s book and the film, the Balibo Five – journalists Greg Shackleton and Malcolm Rennie, and crew Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, and Brian Peters, were not merely unlucky casualties of war – but were ruthlessly and intentionally executed by invading Indonesian forces. Joliffe’s history of the incident has been corroborated by the testimony of Colonel Gatot Purwanto, who was reportedly present when the Australians were captured.

The film centres around grizzled Darwin-based journalist, Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who is convinced by a young, sprightly Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) to journey with him to East Timor to cover what he fears to be an impending invasion by Indonesia. Despite some obvious reservations, East indeed agrees to go, but the fate of the Balibo Five (at the time, missing for several weeks) soon consumes his focus. The juxtaposition of the magnitude of the hundreds of thousands of deaths amongst the East Timorese population with the popular import and weight attributed to the lives of the five Australians swiftly becomes a powerful narrative thread.

LaPaglia and Isaac do a sterling job – LaPaglia as the lumbering, world-weary newcomer, and Isaac the slick, lithe local, not a little channelling Gael García Bernal’s Che Guevara. Nathan Phillips (Rennie), Damon Gameau (Shackleton), Gyton Grantley (Cunningham), Mark Leonard Winter (Stewart) and Tom Wright (Peters) give sturdy performances as the Balibo Five, and Director/Writer Robert Connolly does a wonderful job in guiding the story in such a way that the viewer really feels for all the characters, despite the succinct, workmanlike manner in which their personalities are conveyed.

It has become popular to trash Australian cinema (“why can’t we make happy films?”) in recent years, but films like this one and Samson and Delilah are undeniably world class productions. They are films with beauty, and films with meaning. In this instance, Balibo raises several prickly questions that continue to challenge the relationship between the Australian and Indonesian Governments. The Indonesian Government has affirmed frequently for its part that it does not wish to dig into old wounds that have long since healed, or more accurately, that it hopes have been forgotten. Successive Australian federal governments, fearful of the potential backlash that could ensue if they force the issue and embarrass their powerful, somewhat volatile neighbour, have tried to stay out of the debate.

It’s a shame, in this day and age, that the cold, hard truth is still so hard to come by. It’s also a shame that our relationship with Indonesia is evidently still not robust enough to prevent us from stooping to the kowtow when the going gets tough. Three cheers for Australian cinema, and Jill Joliffe, for reminding us of these painful facts.

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