Communist Party of Australia


The Guardian

Current Issue

PDF Archive

Web Archive


Press Fund


About Us

Why you should ...

CPA introduction

CPA Policies

CPA statements

Contact Us

facebook, twitter

Major Issues





Climate Change



What's On







Issue # 1427      9 September 2009

Film Review by Andy Alcock


The film Balibo has taken Australia by storm. For several weeks from late July to mid August, it was the subject of lively discussion on many radio and TV programs and received much coverage in the daily press. Balibo depicts the events in East Timor in the early days of the Indonesian invasion of that country. It could be described as a political and historical thriller.

The story is based largely on the book Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, by Australian journalist Jill Jolliffe who has covered many stories on Timor for over three decades and has written several books on the subject.

The film traces the progress of Roger East (Anthony Lapaglia), an Australian journalist, as he treks towards the tiny town of Balibo. The purpose of his visit is to investigate the cause of the deaths of five young, Australian-based media workers who were brutally murdered by the Indonesian military (TNI). This tragedy occurred on October 16, 1975, on the second day of its covert invasion of what was then known as Portuguese Timor.

At each stage of his journey, the filmmakers flash back to a crucial stage in the story of the disappeared journalists.

East was originally persuaded to go to East Timor by a very youthful Timorese journalist and member of the newly formed Timorese administration, Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac), who wanted him to head-up a media organisation, the East Timor News Agency.

Balibo shows Ramos-Horta accompanying East to Balibo. When they arrive, they find the grim signs of what occurred to the five journalists there. Later, after being attacked by an Indonesian helicopter, Ramos-Horta decides to take East, who was wounded, to a nearby village for assistance. On reaching it, they discover that the TNI has already been there and carried out a massacre of many of the villagers.

The remainder of the film follows Roger East as he gets his story together about the Balibo 5 and other events as the TNI continues its covert invasion until December 7, 1975, when Indonesia dropped all pretences and began its full scale invasion. Finally, it depicts the very brutal murder of East along with scores of Timorese on the Dili wharf.

This is witnessed by Julia (Bea Viegas) an eight year old girl whom East had befriended at the Turismo Hotel and who later comes forward to recount her story to the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR).

The film takes a great deal of poetic licence with history – Roger East never visited Balibo, for example. However, it has great authenticity. It is based on many of the stories told to the CAVR by about 8,000 Timorese; key parts of the film are set at the actual sights where the events occurred in Balibo and Dili and many East Timorese participated in the production. President Jose Ramos-Horta was also consulted in the writing of the film and is very pleased with the outcome.

The journalists killed at Balibo were Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart, who over time have become known as the Balibo 5. In actual history, most people have almost forgotten the role played by Roger East in the Timor disaster, but we have been frequently reminded of the Balibo 5 via the mainstream media. Throughout the years since their deaths, one role of the East Timor solidarity movement has been to keep his name alive. I think that Robert Connolly’s film has effectively revived the great contribution of Roger.

East to East: Timor’s history

It should be noted that the East Timor News Agency (ETNA) did not die with East. For several years after the Indonesian invasion, Denis Freney edited a broadsheet, East Timor News (ETN) that was published occasionally carrying news about events in Timor and support activities around the world. It always acknowledged Roger East as the founder of ETNA.

ETN had to rely on a clandestine radio link between Australia and the Timorese resistance (FRETILIN/FALANTIL) that was established by Freney along with reports from the few people who were able to enter and leave the country while the TNI held it under extremely tight security.

With the support of several Australians and East Timorese, the solidarity movement maintained a transmitter in a remote part of the Northern Territory. Though harassed by Australian intelligence, Telecom and police, this vital contact survived on and off for about three years until Alarico Fernandes, the FRETILIN Minister for Information surrendered to the TNI.

The Fraser government confiscated the radio on at least two occasions. Two others who played a vital role in the radio link were Rob Wesley-Smith, the key Timor activist in Darwin, and Brian Manning. I enlisted two friends from Adelaide to work on the radio and actually purchased two radios to replace those that were confiscated.

Freney was a remarkable activist. He made a great contribution to the East Timor solidarity movement in Australia. Before the invasion, he organised a visit to East Timor by union and community representatives and wrote a book, East Timor – Freedom Caught Between the Powers.

A former teacher, he became a journalist with Tribune, the newspaper of the original Communist Party of Australia. Freney also founded the Campaign for an Independent East Timor which became established in several centres around Australia. He also prepared a broadsheet Seli Hoo, supporting Vanuatu’s independence and always promoted the cause of solidarity with West Papua or Papua Barat (formerly called Irian Jaya by the Indonesian occupiers).

Almost until he died in 1995, Denis co-ordinated National East Timor Activists conferences – at first annually and then biennially. He also obtained support for East Timor from Pacific leaders.

Although the film depicts him as being reluctant to go to Portuguese Timor, Roger East was very committed to finding out about what happened to the Balibo 5, but he also knew that the Timorese people had been betrayed and he wanted to ensure that the world knew about what was happening there.

Before East had gone to Timor, he had had a long and varied career as a journalist. He set up a newspaper in Spain while it was still under the iron rule of General Franco, covered the Suez Crisis, worked in Britain, China, Vietnam and in Cyprus for the UN. He worked in Australia for a Country Party MP and the Darwin Reconstruction Board.

Those who knew him describe him as having progressive politics. East hated repression and was a strong supporter of Palestinian human rights and was a supporter of a republican Australia. In fact, an amusing scene in the film between East and Julia alludes to this fact.

East was able to despatch a few reports about the impending invasion to the outside world. He was urged to leave Dili with FRETILIN forces on the day of the full scale invasion of Timor on December 7, 1975 so that he could cover the war from the mountains. However, he wanted to send one last report as the TNI had taken the Dili Airport. This was probably his undoing and he did not give himself enough time to escape.

A Timorese patrol was sent to get him out safely, but they were killed by Indonesian soldiers. Roger East was a very courageous man who gave his life while trying to ensure that the world knew what was happening in Timor. On what appears to be a WW2 pill box near the beach at Dili, there is a small remembrance plaque to him placed by his family and friends.

Anthony Lapaglia gives a brilliant performance as Roger East as do Osca Isaac as Jose Ramos Horta and Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton. I think Isaac bears an incredible likeness to the very young Ramos-Horta, to whom I was initially introduced to in September in 1978 by Denis Freney. Isaac was born Oscar Isaac Hernandez in Guatemala to a Cuban father and a Guatemalan mother and was raised in Miami, Florida. He also has French, Israeli and other European descent.

As a person who showed a film about East Timor, Timor – Island of Fear, Island of Hope, on numerous occasions in the early years of the occupation, I saw the very moving last report that Shackleton made before his murder. Damon Gameau captures this scene superbly.

Bea Viegas, who had not acted before, plays the role of the mature Julia very well. She came to Australia from Timor as a one-year old with her family in 1975. She graduated with a Bachelor of Asian Studies from Curtin University of Technology. In 2003/2004 she returned to East Timor as a translator/interpreter and also worked as an English and Tetum language teacher for the Australian Army.

Many who have seen the film have commented that Balibo does not include mention of the disgraceful performance of Australian security organisations in response to these events. My understanding is that scenes were filmed depicting this betrayal for the final production, but that it made the movie far too long for commercial use.

Our security services knew of Indonesia’s intentions and the location of the journalists in Balibo, but no effort was made to warn them. Australians want to know why we have security services if they are not going to protect citizens in imminent danger.

This is a subject that could be the basis of another film. Hamish McDonald and Desmond Ball in their book, Deaths in Balibo – Lies in Canberra, go into some depth about this shameful episode in Australia’s history.

On the morning after the murder of the Balibo 5, John Bennetts, a senior Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) officer ordered that all copies of the report of events in Balibo that had been distributed be collected. They were destroyed.

Further, in 1978 Captain John Florent of the Office of National Assessment (ONA) led a team of personnel to scour documents held by the agency for any reference to Balibo so that they could be destroyed.

For years, there has been some debate about the wisdom of the Balibo 5 being where they were when the TNI attacked Balibo. These men were not experienced in reporting from war zones and had mostly covered big city stories. They were not given adequate briefing of the situation nor the barbaric behaviour of the TNI during the seizure of power by Suharto in Indonesia in 1965 and the crimes committed against the West Papuans going back to 1962.

I find it amazing that the very politicians and diplomats who lacked the moral courage to protest to the Indonesian government about their deaths and who attempted to cover up the crimes have the gall to question the motives and courage of these men. Hopefully, Balibo will help expose some of these individuals as they have contributed to the suffering of the people of Timor and the families and friends of the murdered Australian journalists. They have also brought great shame to this country. And of course, they are still cheating Timor Leste out of profits from their oil at a time when they are still rebuilding their shattered nation.

So many people who have been to Timor Leste become very emotionally involved with the people. The country has had so many problems and yet its people who have very little are very welcoming. Balibo writer/director Robert Connolly had this to say about his experiences during the making of the film:

“There are few equivalent events in Australia’s history that so clearly illustrate the clash between principle and pragmatic foreign policy – the abandonment of human rights for short-term political gain. In the face of such pragmatic decision-making and blind eye turning, Balibo looks at the role of those courageous enough to seek out the truth and to maintain the belief for an independent East Timor.

“Travelling to East Timor to make the film was certainly one of the most extraordinary experiences for all involved, with the East Timorese welcoming us to their country and working in every area of production to assist with achieving this re-telling of their nation’s tragic history. Recreating in Balibo the footage that the Balibo 5 were most likely murdered for capturing gave those sequences a tough veracity we would otherwise have struggled to achieve in any other location.

Balibo is a story that demands to be told. The eventual winning of independence for East Timor in 1999 is a modern miracle; a triumph for the determined population of a tiny nation lead by charismatic leaders.”

I agree with Shirley Shackleton that Robert Connlly should be saluted for producing a film of such quality. In addition, I would salute the cast and all who contributed to the production which has done so much to make Australians and the world more aware of the terrible events that occurred in East Timor during the early days of the Indonesian invasion.

I also hope that this will spur politicians in Australia, Indonesia and other countries around the world to bring the perpetrators of the war crimes in East Timor including the Balibo 5 and Roger East to justice.

Andy Alcock is Information Officer, Australian East Timor Friendship Association SA Inc (formerly Campaign for an Independent East Timor SA Inc)

Next articleBook Review by Tony Pecinovsky – Idiot America

Back to index page

Go to What's On Go to Shop at CPA Go to Australian Marxist Review Go to Join the CPA Go to Subscribe to the Guardian Go to the CPA Maritime Branch website Go to the Resources section of our web site Go to the PDF of the Hot Earth booklet go to the World Federation of Trade Unions web site go to the Solidnet  web site Go to Find out more about the CPA