The Australian writer/director Robert Connolly had already established himself as a director to keep an eye out for with The Bank (2001) being a first rate corporate thriller and Three Dollars (2005) wonderfully articulating lower-middle class angst way before it was fashionable. However, with Balibo Connolly has exceeded all previous expectations and made a masterpiece of modern Australian cinema. Balibo begins in present day East Timor with the recording of an oral history being given by a woman who was a young girl during the 1975 Indonesian invasion. Her story – which at the end of the film we are reminded is but one of the lifetime of stories she has – is about Roger East, an Australian journalist who went looking for five younger journalists who went missing while reporting on the Indonesian invasion. The original five journalists became known as the Balibo Five and the Indonesian army murdered them all. Beginning the film with the recording of an oral history establishes that the events that are about to be depicted in the film have come from the testimony of eyewitnesses; testimonies that differ significantly from the official position of the Australian and Indonesian governments who still claim that the journalists were simply caught in crossfire.
Balibo is cleverly constructed as a dual narrative with the flashback scenes depicting the journey of the Balibo Five being intercut with the scenes depicting East following in their footsteps. This not only keeps the film moving at a brisk pace and gives both stories equal importance, but it provides an intrinsic link between the two stories. It is a remarkable accomplishment both in terms of story structure and film editing. Balibo is also beautifully shot and the scenes depicting the Balibo Five are all slightly over-lit to provide further contrast with the Roger East scenes. All the characters are fully fleshed out entities and the lighter moments and interaction between them serves to both relieve the tension and foreshadow the coming tragedy. The young cast portraying the Balibo Five are wonderful as is Oscar Isaac who plays José Ramos-Horta, the man who sought out East and would later become a Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
Anthony LaPaglia portrays East as the classic burnt-out journalist figure, who is lured reluctantly back into action in the pursuit of justice. East may initially seem like a recognisable stock character but LaPaglia embodies him so confidently and with such a genuine blend of compassion, old-school toughness and righteousness, while not ignoring his flaws and weaknesses, that East is presented on screen as the real deal. LaPaglia has always been an excellent and reliable actor but nothing he has done before will prepare you for the power and conviction that he displays in Balibo. Roger East is to LaPaglia what Jake La Motta was to De Niro, what Terry Malloy was to Brando, and more recently, what Daniel Plainview was to Day-Lewis. This is the craft of acting at its absolute best.
Connolly wrote the screenplay with David Williamson, using Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five as their primary reference point. Williamson presence is notable and Balibo contains the best work he has done since he hit his peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Part of what makes Balibo such a great film is that among its politics and desire to set the record straight is a hugely entertaining film with appealing characters. It is not overly didactic or preachy and instead gets the perfect balance of emotional impact, political commentary and historical re-enactment. Giving a human story to acts of genocide is a powerful tool that cinema has to communicate stories that must be told and in this way Balibo is comparable to films of recent years such as Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda although it is closer in tone to the very underrated 1997 film Welcome to Sarajevo. Balibo, however, is the best of the lot.
The key moment in Balibo is the scene where Ramos-Horta heatedly challenges East about the fact that East is trying to discover what happened to five white men while hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are being massacred. It’s a valid question and one that applies to the actual film itself. The response that East gives is sadly all too true – the English-speaking media (and cinema audiences) are simply not going to care about thousands of anonymous brown people but focusing on the fate of five white people will at least get our attention to the fact that gross acts of inhumanity were committed.
Balibo is an astonishing film with many heartbreaking scenes. The ending will leave you shattered and Australians especially will feel a deep sense of painful recognition over the fact that the virtue of being Australian no longer provides the automatic protection throughout the rest of the world that we once naively thought it did. This is a story that had to be told and it has been told in the very best way. This is as good as cinema gets – the story may be devastating but as a cinematic accomplishment, Balibo is something to be celebrated.