A new film has opened political and cultural wounds. Author Paul Cleary and filmmaker, Robert Connolly present two informed views on its portayal of history.
Like a western movie in which all of the baddies are “redskins”, the only villains portrayed in the new Robert Connolly film Balibo are the Indonesians who did the killing, which means this dramatisation of the murder of six journalists in East Timor in 1975 tells only half the story.
And instead of telling the whole story – drawing on a mountain of records that reveal the diplomatic shenanigans – about two-thirds of the film is pure fiction. Aside from the murder of the journalists, the rest of the film is fiction and yet Connolly claims at the outset it is a “true story”.
None of the Australians and Americans who had a hand in the events that led to these murders – and the deaths of an estimated 183,000 Timorese – are portrayed in the film.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who tacitly endorsed an Indonesian takeover of the colony that Portugal was in the throes of abandoning, gets a split-second mention.
The film's official website demands that the Indonesian officers associated with the murders be tried for “war crimes”, but it does not call for complicit Westerners to face justice.
US president Gerald Ford and secretary of state Henry Kissinger sanctioned the full-scale invasion of East Timor in a meeting in Jakarta with Indonesia's president Soeharto in December 1975. While the film mentions the meeting, Connolly has not extended his war crimes demands to Kissinger, a Nobel laureate who is still alive. Presumably this wouldn't bode well for potential US distribution.
While there are oblique references to the shadowy role of the Australian and US governments, the film pulls its punches by failing to name names and reveal the dirty tricks played by key politicians and officials.
As a result, Balibo ends up heaping all of the blame onto Indonesia and Indonesian people and demonising them along the way.
Balibo's most glaring omission, in both a historical and theatrical sense, is the pivotal role played by officials in Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA, later DFAT) who agitated for an Indonesian takeover, and became complicit in its execution.
The film overlooks the mountain of documents on Australia's involvement in East Timor from 1974 to '76. Connolly and his co-writer David Williamson claim they relied on the book Cover-up by journalist Jill Joliffe, which is a fine book, but the film barely resembles it.
Nor does it reflect the revelations about DFA officials in the book Death in Balibo, by Australian National University academic Des Ball and Sydney Morning Herald journalist Hamish McDonald, which reveals how senior officials in the Jakarta embassy, Malcolm Dan and Allan Taylor, received detailed briefings on Indonesia's plan to destabilise and invade East Timor.
The authors conclude that through this Jakarta embassy contact, Canberra became “deeply complicit” in the invasion and did nothing to stop it.
The book reveals how on October 14, 1975, when the Seven Network broadcast a report from its news team en route to the Indonesian border, Australia's ambassador to Jakarta Richard Woolcott sent a cable to Canberra outlining in detail Indonesia's plans to attack East Timor's border towns, including Balibo. DFA could not have been unaware of the Seven report given that it was broadcast in Canberra.
No one in the government contacted the Seven and Nine networks to warn of the imminent danger. The reason? Ball and McDonald say that warning them would have revealed that Australia had intimate knowledge of Indonesia's plans.
The authors concluded: “This is a rare case where officials decided, in peacetime, to sacrifice some of their fellow citizens to protect security and intelligence interests.” At the very least, it is a case of official negligence, failing to connect the intelligence with the known movement of the journalists.
Connolly and Williamson have ignored the declassified cables that show how Woolcott barracked for an Indonesian takeover and tacitly condoned the use of force. In August 1975 Woolcott sent a cable to Canberra arguing that Australia would get a bigger share of the oil and gas in the Timor Sea if Indonesia controlled the territory.
In the same cable he took the audacious step of suggesting that a minister could answer a question in Parliament or at a press conference explaining the need for the use of force in Timor from Indonesia's standpoint. While planting the seed, he also covered his backside by recommending that the strategy not be used.
None of this illuminating material gets even the slightest mention in Balibo, and nor does Woolcott, despite his controversial role in these events.
Instead, Connolly spends a vast chunk of the film on a fictional journey to Balibo by the sixth journalist, Roger East, and Jose Ramos-Horta.
This Hollywood approach to an important and sensitive part of history is unfortunate and unnecessary. The Australian-born director Roger Donaldson showed with his film about the Cuban missile crisis, Thirteen Days, how cables and minutes of meetings can produce a thriller.
In an attempt to make the film appear historically accurate Connolly appointed a so-called “consulting historian”, Dr Clinton Fernandes from the Australian Defence Force Academy campus in Canberra, who claims that “everything you see is accurate”. This is patently untrue.
Fernandes has explained how he went to great lengths to portray the Indonesians who killed the Australians. He even researched the pistol fired at the head of one of the journalists by the actor who played Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, the commander of the Indonesian forces in East Timor, and the safari suit he wore at the time. In reality, Kalbuadi didn't pull the trigger – he was 10 kilometres away at the time.
This immense research effort into the Indonesians associated with war crimes in East Timor, while omitting many other players in these events, seems an entirely biased approach to portraying sensitive historical events.
Paul Cleary, a former adviser to the East Timor government, is a journalist and author of Shakedown – Australia's Grab for Timor Oil. He is writing a historical work on East Timor.
It is inevitable that the first feature film made about the events that occurred in East Timor in 1975 will carry the responsibility by some to address all the wrongs of this terrible time and the tragedy that befell East Timor.
As filmmakers we have a tardy approach to exploring our nation's history, with Gallipoli reaching screens almost 70 years after the event and Breaker Morant taking even longer. That we are only now debating the events that occurred in East Timor 34 ago later is certainly a shame but in Balibo finally we have an opportunity to broaden a much-needed robust discussion to many who know very little of the events of this time.
There will always be issues to resolve in how to tell a story of this contentious nature and we at all times grappled with one central question while making the feature film Balibo.
How do you tell a story about the deaths of five Australian journalists set against the tragedy of the deaths of as many as 183,000 East Timorese during Indonesian occupation?
A number of jingoistic Hollywood films about white men saving the Third World come to mind and while Paul Cleary may prefer a film set in the corridors of Australian power about our country's appalling conduct during this time, we chose a different approach. It was our view that the film needed to take the audience to East Timor and to tell the story from a point of view that captured the greater context of the deaths of the journalists set against the personal tragedy that befell the Timorese people.
With this approach, we embraced the excellent work of Jill Jolliffe's The Living Memory Project, which documents the experiences of Timorese women who had been imprisoned; the powerful interviews with the Timorese by the Timor-Leste Truth and Reconciliation Commission; involved a wide range of Timorese actors whose performance Anthony LaPaglia believes “raised the bar” for the Australian cast because of their honesty and courage; and travelled to the real places, including Balibo, to tell this story.
Does the film as a result speak of the larger political landscape and culpability of those responsible? It certainly does. Baz Luhrmann and I may have made two very different films this year but I share his view that a filmmaker must value the audience's awareness and experience of a film beyond the cinema through the discussion it prompts and debate it generates.
This view respects the audience's ability to use a film as a springboard to explore in detail the issues raised and in this case I encourage anyone interested in the story to explore our consulting historian Clinton Fernandes's excellent footnotes to our film at balibo.com – it includes many of the cables and documents referred to in Cleary's piece.
Already the film has generated a huge amount of discussion and media attention, with the DFAT finally contacting the Balibo Five families about repatriation three days before the film's world premiere, Richard Woolcott coming out of hiding with his ridiculous assertions in the media last week, and Geraldine Willesee's excellent opinion piece identifying quite poignantly what happens when “good men do nothing”. Even Cleary, through this newspaper, has been given a forum to promote his views and work that he would otherwise not have had, if not for the film.
As you will discover with more scrutiny than Cleary has applied, there is much in our approach that damns president Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger and Gough Whitlam for their roles in this tragedy. Only a month ago I addressed the world media at the International Press Institute conference in Helsinki and dealt with this very matter, a very public position that stands in the face of Cleary's underhand contention that I would soften my views for commercial gain. This clearly isn't true as my work attests.
While Cleary would rather I stitched all the political elements together for the audience, I would prefer to assume that the audience is intelligent enough to join the dots themselves. The lowest common denominator approach to cinema has served audiences poorly, as has a genre of films that bludgeons an audience over the head with the filmmaker's point of view.
In contrast with this, absorbing feature films such as The Killing Fields, Salvador and Hotel Rwanda found a compelling way to explore history and prompt a wider analysis without lecturing the audience, and were a huge influence on our approach to Balibo. The political thriller demands that characters lead the audience through the drama, rather than merely attempting to articulate a didactic polemic as Cleary would prefer.
For 34 years the truth of what happened to the Balibo Five has been concealed from the Australian public. Finally, with the excellent results of the NSW Deputy Coroner before the Federal Police, the film due for release this week and two books recently published, the truth may finally be acknowledged. It is certainly my hope that the film will play a role in this. While Cleary may dismiss the priority in seeking to make accountable those "who pulled the trigger", most would agree that it's certainly a good place to start after all these years of silence and inaction.
This month East Timor celebrates 10 years of independence, and a Tetum-language version of Balibo will screen in Dili on August 28. While there is great tragedy in the story of the events that befell East Timor, there is also great optimism and Balibo also celebrates the resilient spirit of the Timorese people as they look to the future.
It is my hope that Balibo will play a part in telling the story of this incredible country to a wider audience through the film's personal, humanist ambition, rather than the lecture on the issues Cleary would have preferred I made.
Robert Connolly is the writer and director of Balibo, The Bank and Three Dollars. He was also the producer of The Boys and Romulus, My Father.