JOSE Ramos Horta looks a little abashed. The film Balibo is "largely accurate", he says, in its portrayal East Timor's current President as a young revolutionary struggling to draw attention to the plight of his country — but he admits it does feature a couple of "Hollywood" moments.

"In the past I always avoiding seeing films in which I am directly involved because I do not like to relive past events," he said yesterday, sitting alongside the director and actors from the movie.

"Watching Balibo has caused me the same effect. You go back to 35 years ago … reliving what I thought I had forgotten about."

Set in 1975, the film tells of five Australian TV network journalists murdered by invading Indonesian troops in Balibo, a small village in the country's west. Mr Ramos Horta then helped another Australian reporter, Roger East, to discover their fate. Later, as the invasion force landed in the capital Dili, East was also executed.

Mr Ramos Horta recalls East as a very serious man who felt disgusted at the events in East Timor. "We did argue a lot," he said, and in the film the two fight over the impending danger. But he said East was never in any doubt that he would stay in the country to cover the Indonesian invasion.

"Journalists go where the story is — you don't go in the opposite direction," he said. "There are still some lingering comments by some that the journalists were in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, they were in the right place in the right time to cover a story."

Australia was one of few countries to formally recognise Indonesia's takeover of East Timor. But the deaths of the Balibo five — as the journalists from channels Seven and Ninebecame known — dogged successive Australian governments, who were criticised for blithely accepting claims by the Suharto regime that the group had died in crossfire between Indonesian and Timorese troops.

Follow-up investigations, including a 2007 NSW coronial inquiry, found the men were captured alive, executed and their remains burnt in an effort to hide the crime.

"Why those who killed them felt the need to burn them completely [is] because when senior officers arrived on the scene and saw what happened, they knew what would be the consequences," Mr Ramos Horta said.

"So they had to burn any evidence that those people had been captured alive and then were brutally murdered … to cover evidence or torture and mutilation."

Mr Ramos Horta is quick to add these past crimes are not an indictment of modern Indonesia. The authoritarian Suharto regime crumbled more than a decade ago, paving the way for East Timor's independence.

"Indonesia changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years," he says. "Indonesian democracy today is one of the most inspiring in the entire South-East Asian region."

East Timor's president sees the film as a chance to learn from history and not repeat mistakes. Australia is a major regional power, he said, and could not turn a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses.