Balancing ‘Balibo’

Robert Connolly’s film ‘Balibo’ relates events in 1975 in East Timor around the killing of Australian journalists who were reporting on Indonesia’s invasion. Jill Jolliffe’s book ‘Cover-Up: the Inside Story of the Balibo Five’ was used and David Williamson collaborated on the script. The film has certainly had a desired effect of stirring up debate about that shadowy period. So far Gough Whitlam has kept his silence, despite my call for him to speak out.

Tony Maniaty, journalist & author of ‘Shooting Balibo’ was in Timor at the time and is portrayed in the film. Recently he commented that the saga is complex; responsibility for the tragedy is shared; and that it was not Australia’s finest hour – themes explored vigorously in the film.

Paul Cleary, journalist & author of ‘Shakedown: Australia’s Grab for Timor Oil’ criticises its historical inaccuracy; neglect of political connivance by Australian and US leaders with Indonesia; and the central plot device, a fictional journey to Balibo by journalist Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia) to discover the fate of the missing five. Connolly defended his approach by giving credit to his audience “to join the dots themselves”.

The film should not be prefaced ‘true story’, but it’s a compelling tale of the bravado of young Australians; East’s personal journey to martyrdom; the menace of impending Indonesian savagery; Timorese resistance; and the dilemmas of savvy Ramos Horta. An estimated 183,000 Timorese were killed.

The story is told through a witness to the Dili invasion as an 8 year old girl, giving evidence today to a Commission for Truth & Reconciliation.  Luke Davies thinks this device felt slightly stiff, but provides a wider historical and personal context; and use of 70s-style camera lenses to film some scenes created a “washed-out, meditative, elegaic quality”.

For continuity spotters a minor false note is the Polynesian-style tattoo on Anthony’s arm, definitely not in fashion in the 1970s except for Marquesans! One also wonders about LaPaglia’s corpulence, as other actors physically resemble their characters, but he is larger-than-life.

Nitpicking aside, Balibo is a must see film. Criticisms of a Hollywood approach are misplaced as it’s not a documentary. But rather a powerful dramatic insight into a rarely-evoked period – engrossing, tragic and edgy. Athough we know the ending, suspense is held and climactic impact strong. LaPaglia is excellent and also Oscar Isaac as Ramos Horta sharing centre stage.

Your reviewer travelled in Portuguese Timor in 1970 and relished this backward look at my first foreign country, which evoked memories of my youth, another foreign country.

A Tetum-language version of Balibo will be shown in Dili this Sunday, during East Timor’s 10 year celebration of its referendum on independence. And final footnote: the Victorian Government financed restoration of the house where the Balibo Five were murdered and gifted it to the local community: Balibo House Trust.


  1. Thank you for your insight into the movie Balibo. I saw the film at the Melbourne film festival and am really enjoying reading all the different points of view the film is inspiring in various articles and blog posts.

    One point I would like to mention is that involving Anthony LaPaglia’s physical condition in the movie. I think that was a deliberate decision on both the actor’s and director’s part to further the idea that the character of Roger East was past his prime. LaPaglia must have deliberately put on weight for the role, something he also did for his role in Lantana. I have seen photos of him in June 2008 months before filming began for Balibo and he was not that heavy. Also, if you look at current pictures of him, you will see an even more dramatic weight loss. This has lead me to believe that his “corpulence,” as you say, in the film was a deliberate character device.

    As for the tattoos…well, that’s just Anthony. Given the shoe-string budget the movie was made on, I doubt they could afford to do much to cover them up and post-production removal with CGI would have been prohibitively expensive. I guess they were just hoping that it wouldn’t bother people too much…

    1. Thanks for your feedback. Re Anthony’s size, it could be intentional as you say, but I don’t reckon it expressed ‘past his prime’, as he looked otherwise fine & vigorous. I found it a bit distracting, and I couldn’t find a photo of East to compare with. Anyway much appreciate your comments.

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