Saturday, August 15, 2009

Film review: Balibo

Director: Robert Connolly
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac, Damon Gameau
Country: Australia
Year 2009

Robert Connolly’s third feature is a historical political thriller of rare quality, not just in terms of Australian filmmaking but on any. Taking us back to the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor Connolly and his co-writer David Williamson (Gallipoli) refuse to pull their punches yet intelligently avoid sermonising the Australian government’s culpability in turning a blind eye, effectively condemning six Australian journalists to death. Based on Jill Jolliffe’s 2001 book Cover Up, Balibo is powerfully affecting cinema and a compelling piece of storytelling.

The film opens with a Timorese woman giving her oral history at the recent Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in which she recalls witnessing the execution of Australian journalist Roger East. Played by the rock solid Anthony LaPaglia, we first meet East as he is eagerly encouraged by a young Timorese patriot José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) to head the government’s news agency. Jaded and cynical, East is not to be convinced easily and only comes round when his own buried idealism gets the better of his world weary instinct.

Arriving to find Dili a capital city under siege with Indonesia intelligence wondering the streets in civilian clothes, East is more interested in picking up the trail of the five missing young Australian journos in order to discover their fate. Balibo expertly weaves together two storylines, that of Greg Shacklton, Gary Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters and Tony Stewart reporting from the frontline whilst East investigates their fate. Despite knowing the men’s ultimate fate, Balibo never misses a beat of tension, the impending spectre of death always looming claustrophobically overhead.

The film’s narrative echoes the sentiment offered by East, that the only way he can get the Australian public interested in the plight of the East Timorese is by exposing the fate of the Balibo Five, much to Ramos-Horta’s distaste. Along the road to the titular village where the Five met their ultimate end we see the results of Indonesian death squads, whose activities resulted in the murder of thousands of civilians. Balibo is anything but a film without conviction, its anger palpable and uncompromising, leaving the audience unable to ignore the spectre of crimes committed and the implications of the Australian government’s inaction.

And while Balibo is an intensely political film, it is also a beautiful one. Nick Meyer’s editing between the two timelines is nothing short of masterful and more than appropriately complemented by Tristan Milani’s photography on both 16mm and 35mm. Milani deploys handheld camera work for the most part in all the right places, beautifully colour contrasting the duelling stories and capturing the lush, exotic locales of East Timor. It is always a pleasure to see filmmaking of such calibre in sync with storytelling and performance.

Director Connolly has made a remarkable film, equal to Oliver Stone’s Salvador, arguably that filmmaker’s best work, and is a reminder to Australia that with great power comes great responsibility. The Balibo Five and Roger East died trying to report the truth, the very least we can do is stand up and pay attention.


Paul Martin said...

I'll say right up that I think Balibo is an important film. Important because (1), it's a rare example of an Australian film grappling with politics and (2), the politics are important and close to home. It puts the record straight, something we suspected all along, but denied and swept under the carpet for decades.

But I also think the film is being over-rated in much the same way that many recent Australian films were lauded for being "worthy" even if the films were themselves mediocre. It was as if political correctness protected many of our films from more honest critical analysis. Similarly, the importance of Balibo seems to be resulting in it not being criticised for its obvious weaknesses.

While there are some very strong performances, in particular Oscar Isaac as the young Horta, LaPaglia's performance casts a shadow over the film that, for me at least, brings it down. I don't find LaPaglia very credible as an actor in general, and his character seems very contrived. The ending in particular lacks any subtlety, and I question whether we really needed to hear him screaming "I'm Australian" as often as he did.

I also thought the shift between time frames is clumsy, at times incoherent and reduces the momentum of each of the parallel stories. In spite of these flaws, the film somehow manages to drag itself out of the mud and the last third is quite gripping and the best part for me. I also thought Juliana's character was a good device in bookending the film.