It’s an irony that much of the alienation evident in the public debate in Australia is funded by taxpayers and finds expression on the public broadcasters ABC and SBS, within universities and on stage and screen. The latest example of this genre is Robert Connolly’s film Balibo, with a screenplay by David Williamson and Connolly. The film is loosely based on Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up, recently reissued under the title Balibo.
The film tells the story of the five Australian journalists from Channels Seven and Nine (Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart) who were killed in the East Timorese town of Balibo on October 16, 1975 and another journalist (Roger East) who was killed in Dili two months later. All six deaths occurred during the Indonesian invasion.
Balibo received financial backing from a number of public sources, including Screen Australia, Film Victoria, the Melbourne International Film Festival Premier Fund and the Northern Territory Government. This would not matter much if Connolly presented his story as it is namely, a fictional account of the fate that befell the journalists. But at the beginning of Balibo, viewers are informed that this is a true story.
It isn’t, but many who view it will regard it as a compressed, but authentic, account. As such, Balibo is likely to tarnish Indonesia’s reputation in Australia and to encourage Australians to think ill of their institutions.
Balibo presents Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in the darkest possible light. The film’s message is that Whitlam was complicit in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor and callously indifferent to the fate of the six deceased journalists. In one scene, Jose Ramos-Horta, the leader of the Fretilin resistance movement in East Timor, views a photo of Whitlam with Indonesia’s President Soeharto and declares: Two pieces of shit in matching shirts. No alternative view is heard.
This view lets Portugal off the hook. The Portuguese were one of the worst of the European colonial powers. They did next to nothing to build an infrastructure in East Timor or educate the local population. Then, in 1975, they suddenly junked the dependent colony, leaving behind a nascent civil war between the pro-communist Fretilin and the non-communist UDT.
Fretilin prevailed, and most commentators in the West, including the journalists depicted in Balibo, supported Ramos-Horta and his comrades. This story is not told in Connolly’s film. However, Ramos-Horta himself has had second thoughts about the events.
Writing in The Australian Financial Review in 1999, Ramos-Horta said that one day the political leadership of my generation will have to answer for its actions and atone for the many senseless killings in the civil war of August 1975. On Four Corners in 1998, he acknowledged Fretilin had made a tremendous mistake in willingly allowing itself to be portrayed as communist. In his book Shooting Balibo, Tony Maniaty quotes Ramos-Horta as describing East Timor’s civil war and Fretilin’s unilateral declaration of independence as errors.
Maniaty reported East Timor for the ABC. As depicted in Balibo, he advised the television crews not to go to the town. They ignored the advice. Shackleton seems to have been the strongest personality in the group. Maniaty even speculates Shackleton may have exhibited mild suicidal tendencies in taking the actions he did.
In 2007, Dorelle Pinch, deputy NSW coroner, found the Balibo Five had been deliberately killed by Indonesian Special Forces a finding welcomed by their relatives. Maniaty quotes from Pinch’s findings where she held the journalists themselves bear the responsibility for being alone in Balibo at the time the Indonesian … military forced entered. Clearly Maniaty agrees with this view.
Apart from Whitlam, Richard Woolcott has been most pilloried in Australia for the deaths of the Balibo Five. Interviewed in The Australian this month, he said the film depicts Shackleton painting the Australian flag on the wall of their accommodation but a photograph of the Fretilin flag on another part of the wall is never shown. It can be found in Death in Balibo: Lies in Canberra, by Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald.
Interviewed in The Sun-Herald at the weekend, Connolly alleged his film had forced Woolcott to come out of hiding. In fact, Woolcott has been prominent in the public debate in recent years and set out his case on the matter in his memoirs The Hot Seat.
There is no doubt that six Australian journalists were brutally killed. Yet, there is a lot of blame to go around for the tragic events in that country over recent decades. Balibo implies the entire fault for this tragedy of East Timor lies with an aggressive Indonesia and a weak Australia during Whitlam’s time. This is misleading. It is yet another example of left-wing alienation at work. Balibo runs a clever argument. But it does not proclaim a truth.