LaPaglia pushes for Balibo action
A new Australian film depicting the controversial killing of the Balibo Five should prompt war crimes charges, says actor Anthony LaPaglia.
Robert Connolly's Balibo tells the story of five Australian-based journalists killed when Indonesian troops invaded East Timor in October 1975.
LaPaglia plays Roger East, a Darwin-based journalist who went to Dili to investigate their deaths and was then himself murdered.
The Indonesian Government has always maintained that the so-called Balibo Five died in crossfire as their troops fought Fretilin rebels - a version of events accepted by previous Australian governments.
The film, however, supports the findings of a 2007 coronial inquest: that the journalists - Greg Shackleton, Brian Peters, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart and Malcolm Rennie - were executed on the orders of Indonesian military chiefs to prevent news of their illegal invasion reaching the outside world.
LaPaglia hopes the film's release this week prompts action from Australian authorities.
"The two guys that were basically responsible, they're still around. So the Australian Government actually has now the green light to get those guys extradited and go on trial for war crimes," he told ABC News Online.
"And two years ago when the finding came out and [Kevin] Rudd was quite new ... he was quite keen on seeing that through.
"Well I guess he's been busy 'cause the last two years nothing's happened.
"But you know what? This is nothing new ... There's this kind of game that they [governments] play, which is - things will come up and the heat will start up and so they'll have an inquest - 'we're doing something' - and the inquest will come out and these findings will come out and then they go, 'Well there we go. I guess that was enough.' And the families go, 'Well no, it's not'."
Government inaction over the Balibo Five angers LaPaglia. He says it's time the blame game and buck passing stopped.
"Just the other day, [Richard] Woolcott [former Australian ambassador to Indonesia] releases a statement to the press saying: 'It's the networks' fault cause they let them go there.' I don't know what it's going to take for this man to admit culpability. He knows way more than he's telling. I know he does 'cause I've seen stuff," LaPaglia says.
"The fact that he [Woolcott] showed up to the inquest shows you that there's either a curiosity, or maybe he's getting a bit nervous because he could be heavily implicated; Gough Whitlam could still be implicated; Malcom Fraser could be implicated, because even after Gough went, Malcom Fraser continued with the policy."
Director Connolly won't apologise for the strong political stance his film takes.
"The coronial inquest found that these men were murdered and it was most likely an act of murder ordered from high above," he says.
"For so many years and several government inquires here, it said they were killed in crossfire - and yet the coroner [Dorelle Pinch] couldn't find one witness to their death in crossfire. So it was important to me that the film corrected that wrong. You know, the film shows people in Australia what actually happened to those guys.
"After 34 years of people being deceived and the truth being concealed, It was really important to me that I used as much rigour and as much historical accuracy as I could.
"Thankfully the coronial findings were so detailed I was able to almost be forensic about recreating what we think happened to them."
Scene of the crime
To do that, Connolly, his cast and crew went back to the scene of the crime. Balibo is the first feature film ever made in East Timor.
"Making a film there was the most extraordinary filmmaking experience of my life," Connolly says.
"You know, to go to this incredible country, to work with the Timorese. To go to Balibo, to film in the 400-year-old Portuguese fort that sits above Balibo... When we know these guys filmed footage that they were most likely murdered for filming and to re-create that - it was extraordinary.
"I mean films take you to different places; that's one of the incredible things about being a film director. But this one particularly - you know, to get to go to East Timor."
For Damon Gameau, who plays Channel Seven reporter Greg Shackleton in the film, it was a life-changing experience.
"It's funny 'cause Greg actually says in one of his lines: 'It's impossible to explain this to you but we'll try.' And I know what he meant. There's a real magical spiritual element to that country," he says.
"They're such a nation of storytellers and they're such a generous, warm-hearted race of people. It's very infectious."
Working closely with the families of the slain journalists also made this a unique experience for actor Gameau.
"It started for me with meeting Shirley [Shackleton], meeting Greg's wife, and spending a couple of days with her just to sort of get a feel for Greg and the kind of guy he was," he recalls.
"Right from the outset she stressed to me that she wanted me to make him a human being and to not glorify him at all or sugar coat these guys, which would have been easy to do.
"So it was quite liberating 'cause right from the get-go she said: 'Look, he was a bit difficult, he did rub people the wrong way, he was fiercely ambitious and I don't mind if you show that' ... I was almost given a checklist that I could tick off of various traits that I wanted to put into the character.
"So you kind of get your boundaries defined for you in a way. Whereas other roles where it's left to your own imagination, you can go as far as you want, this one is sort of curtailed a little bit and I find that much, much easier."
Connolly says he felt a sense of responsibility to the long-suffering families to depict the events as poignantly accurate as he believes possible.
"I was terribly nervous about what the families were going to say and I had screenings for them all immediately after finishing the film, and their responses were so positive. It was fantastic," he says.
"I think in large part I can give credit to the actors who really took that responsibility on to play those men as accurately as they could."
LaPaglia - who is also credited as a producer on the film - is now on a personal crusade to ensure what he calls a dark chapter in Australia's history doesn't continue to get swept under the rug.
"There's not a lot of stuff you can get behind that you really, really have a strong emotional connection to ... See it's not just the story about the Balibo Five and Roger East. It's also about, per capita, one of the greatest acts of genocide in recent history," he says.
"The Indonesians murdered over a third of the Timorese between '75 and '99 and may have continued, had the tape from the Santa Cruz massacre not got released."
Balibo opens nationally tomorrow.