There is a fine line between a documentary and a movie, but occasionally a film comes along that sits very comfortably on that line. Balibo is one of these. The very true story of Roger East, who Jose Ramos-Horta lured to East Timor in those few days between Portugal’s withdrawal and Indonesia’s invasion in 1975, Balibofollows East’s efforts to find out what happened to the five Australian reporters who had vanished amidst the Indonesian advance.
The film has a unique quality that at once depicts East’s story and allows the audience to engage fully with him as a character, while at the same time telling the story of the Balibo Five with a sense of documentary. The process is not unlike Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt, in the way that the film shifts from building dramatic intensity to communicating the facts of the story.
This serves the purposes of the film makers very well. Talking about the making of the film (I went to Dendy’s Q&A session), director Robert Conolly talks about the Indonesian government asking whether the film will include the Indonesian point of view, to which he responded that the last thirty years of hearing the Indonesian point of view hasn’t gotten us any closer to the truth. I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of this film as a historic record, but as a piece of cinema, it has more human honesty than your average documentary, and more depth than your average movie.
East Timor celebrates ten years of independence later this month, so this is a timely release, in a way. It is, however, an Australian film about six Australians. What remains is to hear the stories of the East Timorese who suffered 24 long years of Indonesian rule. The makers of Balibo are aware of this, and provided training to East Timorese working with them on their film, in the hope that they will one day do so.