EDITORIAL MONDAY 17.08.09.
The Hollywood movie trailers often seem to say something like, “If you only see one film this year, go and see this one.” I’m tempted to say that about the new docudrama “Balibo” because of the historical importance of the story that it tells. While most of us now know the truth about Balibo and the five Australian journalists who were killed there, the fact is that most Australians were kept in the dark for a very long time about the truth of what occurred, and the truth of our own government’s complicity in what occurred. Balibo, the movie, vividly recreates what was for so long deliberately hidden.
The truth is that Indonesian soldiers, disguised as civilians, attacked Balibo on the 16th of October 1975 and captured the five Australians. Despite the fact that they came forward with their hands up in the universal gesture of surrender, despite the fact that they loudly proclaimed that they were Australian and they were journalists, despite the fact they had painted a crude Australian flag on the house in which they were staying, they were executed within minutes.
For years afterwards, the Indonesian authorities insisted that the journalists had been killed accidentally in crossfire, and successive Australian governments went along with it. The appalling truth is that not only did Australian authorities know and conceal the truth, but the Australian government knew in advance of the invasion and approved it on the basis of maintaining regional stability and a good relationship with Indonesia. These are proven facts and great pains were taken to ensure the historical accuracy of the film. After years of fiction having been presented as the official version of events, now a film presents the truth.
Some people might rail against the idea of being told that they “must” see a movie because it is “important” or even “educational, but the film of Balibo is a powerful retelling of one of the great injustices of the twentieth century. It is certainly not a popcorn movie, and the only happy ending comes from the bookended depiction of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings after the achievement of East Timorese independence in 1999, but it is a very well made film that delivers a genuinely emotional experience. It begins slowly and ominously, building to a gut-wrenching level of intensity.
The innocence and cheerfulness of the young journalists gradually becomes an understanding and an empathy for the people around them, who are fighting simply for the dignity of their own existence. The spirit of the time is captured beautifully by the well chosen cast, and the portrayal of the era is meticulous in every respect. It is a film which not only reminds us of an important part of our history, it also reminds us that governments of every persuasion have no compunction about lying to their own people in the name of the national interest.
That is a message which is important in any century.