I meet writer/director Robert Connolly on the day that his latest film, Balibo, received a general theatrical release all over Australia. Connolly’s extraordinary film depicts what happened to the Australian journalist Roger East in 1975 when he went looking for five younger journalists after they went missing while reporting on the impending Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Connolly has just come off a gruelling three-week promotional tour all over Australia and although very keen to chat with me, he is irked by the criticism about the film’s occasional use of handheld cameras.
“The handheld in Balibo is so not overt,” Connolly tells me, “but it’s what we did because that was how those guys filmed.”
Connolly is referring to the fact that a lot of technology from the 1970s was used to film the Balibo Five scenes.
“I used ingenue lenses from the ‘70s, standard 16 lenses not super-16 lenses, I graded it – using Brett Manson, an amazing grader who also did Tsotsi – to make it look like reversal, we used a faster stock that had more grain in it and a whole range of things. We emulated the style of that time with the camera movements – handheld!”
I have to admit that I was surprised to hear that other people had made such comments because the use of handheld in Balibo is minor and when it is used it feels stylistically correct. Perhaps the issue has less to do with the film itself and more to do with the people making the criticisms?
“Filmmakers took the camera off the tripod four years ago – continuing to complain about that is getting embarrassing.”
I ask Connolly about his approach to filmmaking and suggest that use of handheld aside; he is more of a classical filmmaker rather than a director who likes to give his films a recognisable stylistic signature. There’s no directorial stamp on his three films – The Bank, Three Dollars, Balibo – it’s more about telling a really captivating story.
“The political agenda in the lot of them is the link in my work. The stylistic choices should always serve the film. Some directors have a particular flourish. You think of a Tarantino film. You know what you’re going to get, you have your expectations and he delivers. But that’s not my approach. It’s not the best vehicle for the political ambition of my work.”
Speaking of the political agenda, how does Connolly respond to the other main criticism that Balibo has received about it not containing more content about the Whitlam government?
“Whitlam is mentioned in the film but that issue is a different film for a different demographic. And it’s not a film for the East Timorese people. I had all the Whitlam stuff in Balibo originally but I took it out and replaced it with the Juliana story.”
The Juliana (Bea Viegas) character is depicted in Balibo as one of the many East Timorese people who have helped document the troubled nations history by coming forward and telling their painful stories. Juliana’s presence in the film functions as an important device for stating that Balibo is a story that belongs to the East Timorese people. However, not everybody seems to understand this concept and it frustrates Connolly.
“There is this obsession with the idea that this film has to be from a white Australian point-of-view. This obsession comes from our own guilt about Whitlam and what happened. But, the choice I made after travelling to Timor a lot was to tear that stuff out and say ‘no’. 183 000 Timorese died so I’m going to talk about that experience through the testimonies of the Timorese who came forward to tell their stories, which Juliana is an amalgam of as a character. The Balibo Five is a point of entry to the story of East Timor but I never wanted to make a film from that whole genre of white-man-saves-the-third-world. I hate those films.”
This statement prompts me to ask about the crucial scene in Balibo beside a hotel pool where Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) and José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) argue about the ethics of focusing on the lives of five white men given the huge numbers of East Timorese that have died. It’s a scene that not only comments on East’s investigation but also the film itself. I make the comment that it would have been a horribly didactic scene if handled badly.
“I know. It was hard. I loosened it right up on the day and let the actors improvise. I had the schematics of it and the arguments – the relative value of the Balibo Five verses the tragedy of East Timor – but I actually pulled back. I set the camera back with long boom poles and I said, ‘Just go at it. See who wins the fight. Just see what happens. Make these arguments and don’t attack each other until you feel so furious with each other. Let it be real.’ So that allows the drama to speak more than the politics of what’s being said. I did one take and they didn’t end up in the pool because they weren’t angry enough – they started laughing!’
I discover that Connolly and I share an admiration for the British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom and I mention that Welcome to Sarajevo contains many similarities to Balibo. Connolly brings up A Mighty Heart, about the 2002 kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Connolly confesses that he initially thought Winterbottom missed a chance by deciding not to show the actual footage of Pearl’s final piece to camera.
“So in Balibo with Greg Shackleton’s (Damon Gameau) two minute piece I was always planning to use the original footage. In the middle of the film I was going to go to the original and then I realised half way through it that all I would be doing would be reminding the audience that this was a re-creation. I nearly made that error.”
Re-creating actual events comes with a heavy responsibility, especially when the events are so recent and tragic. Before Balibo received any public screenings, Connolly visited the relatives of the Balibo Five and Roger East to hold private screenings. It was an experience that he describes as amazing, a relief and very moving. He also showed the film to José Ramos-Horta, who is now the president of East Timor.
“I had shown it to Ramos-Horta first in Dili on a little screen with a hundred people and people were treating it more like a home movie. Whenever he did anything heroic everyone cheered! But when I showed it to him at the Melbourne International Film Festival, which was the second time, he was very emotional. He did this amazing speech about post World War II atrocities and how East Timor’s tragedies fitted into that really as a drop in the ocean. His hope was that the film would speak of the human condition and challenge governments to avoid these situations.”
Part of what makes Balibo such an impressive film is that even though it is a film that partly exists to set the record straight and draw attention to the suffering of the East Timorese people, it is also very entertaining.
“Balibo is a political thriller. I tried to make something that people might enjoy that doesn’t feel like homework. It is less didactic than either of my previous films; Three Dollars probably being the most obvious because at that point in history I really needed to go for the jugular with the Howard government.”
I tell Connolly that I always felt that Three Dollars was ahead of its time and people probably would have picked up on it far better had it come out now.
“I know! I remember reading editorial pieces saying how dare I criticise this wonderful economy that we’ve got. And I was wondering, are people not seeing the homeless on the street? At the Australian Film Institute awards, when I got the screenplay award, I got up and said that a lot of people criticised Three Dollars because they thought that David Wenham’s character was too easily fired from his job. So I said that I’d like to thank the Howard government for correcting that plot point with their industrial relations reforms.”
With the collective cultural conservatism of the Howard era over, filmmakers are once more able to intelligently explore and question ideas of Australian identity without being attacked. I ask Connolly about his intentions behind the scenes in Balibo where the characters feel compelled to assert the fact that they are Australian.
“It’s a naive belief that our national identity will protect us. It permeates the whole film. And when a character says ‘I am Australian’ when hundreds of people are being killed around them, what does that mean? It means nothing. I’m interested in nationalistic interests within the media too. We know that if something happens overseas that involves Australian citizens then it gets much more media coverage. Would East Timor have been freed and become independent in 1999 if it wasn’t for the five Australia-based journalists who died? Would we as Australians have cared enough otherwise?”
© Thomas Caldwell, 2009
Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton from Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009)
The real Greg Shackleton