In 1975, five Australian journalists were murdered in East Timor because they dared to report on what was happening in that country as Indonesia invaded it. A sixth journalist went looking for them and was also murdered in plain view on a wharf in Dili. Since then, the Australian government has turned a blind eye to the events and made the false claim that they were accidentally killed in crossfire. Balibo tells this story.
Juliana Da Costa (Bela Viegas) has returned to East Timor to give evidence at the Timor-Leste Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. She experiences the invasion and the massacre on the Dili Wharf. During that massacre, she witnesses the killing of Roger East (Anthony Lapaglia), an Australian freelance journalist.
As Juliana begins to tell her story, we are taken back to 1975 when Roger East is approached by José Ramos-Horta who invites East to come to Timor and run the East Timor News Agency. At first he refuses. He has had enough of war time correspondence and has become cynical about any good it might do.
However, when Ramos-Horta tells him that five Australian journalists have gone missing without East even knowing it, he decides to go to East Timor to run the agency on the condition that he can first try to find out what happened to the journalists.
The narrative then moves to the story of his search and, as he retraces the journalists' paths, their journey is re-enacted. So the remainder of the movie moves back and forth between East and the five journalists as these two stories converge on the Balibo where the murders took place.
You might think the multilevel narrative would make this movie complicated to follow. Far from it. The movie is brilliantly directed and edited and the events unfold in a clearly understandable way. The ultimate fate of the Balibo Five (the name the journalists eventually came to be known by) is absolutely shocking. The fact that the Australia Government has swept all this under the carpet is a highly disturbing illustration of how politics often takes precedence over humanitarian concerns.
Balibo rings with authenticity. Filming occurred in the actual buildings where the Balibo Five were murdered. The recreation of the news footage recorded by the Balibo Five is stunning and every actor portrays their character superbly. The role of Juliana is a composite character representing over 8,000 Timorese people who courageously came forward to testify at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The involvement in the film of people who were actually there in 1975 during the massacre and the factual presentation of the killing of the Balibo Five based on the actual coronial report investigating the deaths makes this portrayal even more poignant.
Balibo is not only an incredible achievement from a dramatic and cinematic perspective — it is a brilliant political thriller. It is also an extremely important expose of a cover up of a monumentally immoral travesty. It is a potent memorial of six men — Channel Sevenʼs Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart, and from Channel Nine, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and Roger East who cared enough to find out what had happened to his colleagues — who gave their lives to make sure the world knew about what was going on in a small corner of the globe.
Balibo is much, much more than entertainment. It is a disturbing reminder that great injustices can be perpetrated even by some of the best governments in the world.
Violence and coarse language