Luke Buckmaster – Director Robert Connolly's 2009 expose Balibo is based on the true story of Australian journalists the Balibo Five, who were captured by Indonesian militia in the eponymous East Timorese town in 1975. It thrusts audiences into nightmarish situations and forces us to contemplate how we might feel and react.
Penned by Connolly and veteran playwright David Williamson, the screenplay runs two parallel storylines. One concerns the five journalists reporting on a country about to be devastated following invasion by Indonesian militia. The other follows grizzled veteran Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), the AAP journo who went looking for them.
What would we do if we were caught in a soon to be war-torn country – continue our jobs or run for the hills? If we searched for fallen colleagues, when would we call it quits? How much of ourselves would we put on the line?
Balibo latches onto several topical issues: the value of in-the-field journalism, whether the outcomes of reporting in perilous places justify the risks, and, on a more human level, to what extent a terrible situation can lead to a jaded person having a final crack at redemption.
Connolly and Williamson pull no punches about the film's political stance. "The world turned a blind eye," an opening text insert reads, explaining that Indonesia invaded East Timor nine days after the country declared independence following 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule.
The plot kicks off when Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac), who went on to become East Timor's president, visits East, a former foreign correspondent heavyweight cum flack situated in Darwin. "These things you are writing now, the work you do, is bullshit," Ramos-Horta says. "You wrote with passion. With fire. About important things that matter to the world."
Sucking on a cigarette, East grudgingly listens as Ramos-Horta offers him a role as head of a government news agency. The East Timor News Agency is completely independent, he says, to which East replies there's no such thing.
It is the first scene where you feel the crackling chemistry between Isaac and LaPaglia, two actors in fine form. Their feisty dynamic forms the film's core relationship. Sparks fly when their characters' motivations intersect: the once reluctant journalist slogs through East Timor determined to find out what happened to his colleagues whereas Romas-Horta no longer sees the point.
After walking through a field strewn with dead bodies, Romas-Horta accuses East of putting the lives of a handful of white Australians ahead of hundreds of his countrymen. East rebuts that if he can get a story published about five Australians it'll make front page news at home, meaning more coverage. Is this racism or a business reality to be manipulated in order to evoke "the greater good"? Debates such as this won't go away any time soon.
Grippingly put together, with a structure that juxtaposes East's story with grainy re-enactments of the last days of the doomed group he seeks to find, Balibo is a powerful tribute to a rare breed of media professionals driven by the old school Australian ethos of getting the job done, irrespective of obstacles. Those obstacles are terrifyingly extreme in Connolly's film, and while Balibo was undoubtedly intended to shock (mission: accomplished) it also comes with tenderness and spirit.