So Close To Home: The Making Of Balibo

July 31, 2017
Set to screen at The Melbourne International Film Festival, we take a look back at the making of the controversial 2009 Australian political drama, Balibo.  

On a stark wall in Balibo, west of the East Timorese capital of Dili, a lone handprint is etched in blood. It was a powerful motif employed by the makers of 2009’s impressively bold Australian feature Balibo, and serves as a potent reminder of a 34-year-old cover up, and the dawn of one of the darkest periods in a nation’s history.

On October 16, 1975, five Australian journalists, forever labelled The Balibo Five – Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart of Channel 7, and Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters of Channel 9 – were murdered in cold blood by the Indonesian military after filming that country’s invasion of East Timor. They were claimed to have been killed while caught in a cross fire. Less than two months later, the veteran Australian foreign correspondent, Roger East, reported the truth, and detailed the ensuing human rights abuses of the East Timorese people as the Indonesian army invaded Dili. Refusing to leave, East was subsequently executed, along with hundreds of East Timorese.

The Australian government of the day shared a strong relationship with its Indonesian counterpart, and was seen to do nothing to obstruct the invasion. Neither Indonesia nor Australia has made any official acknowledgement of the findings of a coronial enquiry in 2007, which confirmed emphatically that The Balibo Five had been murdered.

Anthony LaPaglia in Balibo.

In 2004, Australian actor, Anthony LaPaglia, brought the book Cover Up, an investigation into the deaths of The Balibo Five by Jill Jolliffe, to his The Bank director, Robert Connolly (Three Dollars). As well as offering a sterling performance as Roger East in the eventual film, LaPaglia was also an executive producer on the film. “Anthony brought it to me without really having a sense of the role that he’d play,” recalled Connolly in the courtyard of an inner Sydney hotel just prior to the release of Balibo in 2009. “From the beginning, he had more of a bigger picture view.”

At the time, however, Adelaide-born Anthony LaPaglia, who now makes his home in Los Angeles after cementing his position as an in-demand film and TV actor in Hollywood, had “very little recollection of the story. In 1975, I was in the last year of high school. I was playing soccer pretty much full time. I wasn’t a political person, so I didn’t have a working knowledge of the story. So when I read Cover Up, I thought ‘This is an amazing story, and I know bugger all about it!’ East Timor is only an hour from Darwin; this was a story really worth telling.”

Using Cover Up as one of its central sources, the screenplay for Balibo quickly broadened. Though initially focusing more intently on the murder of The Balibo Five, Connolly and renowned Australian playwright and screenwriter, David Williamson (The Club, Gallipoli), incorporated Roger East into the story, as well as Jose Ramos Horta, then a political player on the rise and the eventual President of East Timor.

Balibo director, Robert Connolly.

“The script went on a journey,” Robert Connolly told FilmInk. “It’s not just about these five Australian men. It’s about the tragedy that befell East Timor, and the very important role that the murders of these men played in that nation’s history. The war crime of murdering these men is clear, but the strategic blunder of it is never discussed: in killing the journalists, the Indonesian military kept the story of East Timor alive in the Australian psyche for over 24 years. In turn, that contributed to East Timor becoming independent, because Australians continued to be involved. One of the Timorese people said to me in Balibo, ‘We felt betrayed by the Australian Government, but never betrayed by the Australian people.’”

The end result is a political thriller masterfully mixing of fact and fiction. The story is framed by the testimony of young mother, Juliana (impressive newcomer Bea Viegas), to the Timor-Leste Commission For Reception, Truth And Reconciliation (CAVR) as she recalls her memories as a nine-year-old befriending Roger East (who was a guest in her parents’ hotel), and witnessing his execution. In flashback, we follow two intertwining accounts: one tracks the events leading to the deaths of The Balibo Five, while the other follows the treacherous journey of Roger East and Jose Ramos Horta from Dili to Balibo as they retrace the steps of the missing newsmen to discover their true fate.

“I’ve always loved the way that fiction films can apply the blowtorch to history,” Connolly said. “Filmmakers have an amazing freedom to really look at the human experience in these events. I love films like Salvador, The Killing Fields and The Year Of Living Dangerously; I love films about journalists. Then bolted onto that is my own political frustration and anger at this concealed story. It’s amazing that this story hasn’t been told properly.”

Despite a limited budget, Balibo is an expansive film experience. Connolly and LaPaglia’s commitment to the film is palpable. “We took whatever money that we were making on the film and just put it back into it,” LaPaglia told FilmInk. “We had a real conviction about Balibo. It didn’t matter what the outcome was. This was just a story that really deserved to be told. It’s a part of Australian history that was slowly starting to fade away.”

Anthony LaPaglia in Balibo.

ROGER EAST ON FILM

In November 1975, Roger East (LaPaglia), down trodden and cynical, works in public relations after having left behind his time as an accomplished foreign correspondent…or so he thinks. A young, charismatic and cocky Jose Ramos Horta (played by Guatemala-born Oscar Isaac, a year before his minor breakout role in Robin Hood, and many years before he went supernova in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), well aware of East’s keen sense of social justice, entices him back into the fray by alerting East to the disappearance of five Australian journalists. East’s initial reluctance turns to a compulsion to discover the truth, and the two reach an agreement: East will head up an independent news agency in East Timor if Horta journeys with him to Balibo to determine the fate of the journalists. “He felt compelled to do this,” said LaPaglia of East’s motivations. “I don’t think that Roger was particularly happy either. He had a feeling that this would be his last big adventure.”

LaPaglia acknowledges that in portraying East, a fair lashing of intuition was called for. “I could never portray Roger East as he truly, truly was,” he said. “What I wanted to do was capture the essence of who Roger was: his sense of morality, his sense of right and wrong, and his sense of fear and commitment. As long as the emotional truth and integrity of who Roger was is there, then I hope I’ve served him well.”

But unlike The Balibo Five, LaPaglia initially found a dearth of research material on East. “It was as though he’d disappeared from the face of history. He was almost an impenetrable character. If I talked to three people, they would all have three completely different interpretations of Roger!”

Suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle of Roger East began to appear. “Once I started shooting, suddenly I was getting packages of letters that he had written that his friends still had,” LaPaglia explained. “It turned out that a lot of the assumptions that I’d made about him were absolutely right. Roger was an incredibly interesting, complicated, charismatic guy. He was one of the great unsung heroes of Australian journalism. He covered the Civil Rights movement, he was in Vietnam, he covered Apartheid, and he was the first western journalist to get a permit from the Chinese Government. I grew to like him very much.”

Anthony LaPaglia in Balibo.

The actor soberly revealed that filming the massacre scene on the very same Dili wharf where East was executed was unlike anything that he’d experienced before in his career. “The guns were going off, and the Timorese extras – there were hundreds of them – were just screaming and wailing. It was so chilling; so many of these Timorese people had actually witnessed it. There was no acting going on. It was like delayed grief. Everybody had lost someone…it was extraordinary.”

“It was profoundly moving,” recalled Connolly to FilmInk of the re-enactment. “One woman came to me afterwards and said, ‘Now people will know what happened to us.’ There were people crying in between takes. We had to take great care in the way that we did it and how we did it. We worked with the Timorese before we filmed it, and we invited them to take part. It was the invasion of their country. This was a major event in their history. The Timorese wanted to help us tell their story properly, which was great. It’s one of the great experiences of my career; I’m really proud of what we achieved.”

The real Jose Ramos Horta in 1975.

JOSE RAMOS HORTA ON FILM

As the President of East Timor from 20 May 2007 to 20 May 2012, Jose Ramos Horta (who is currently the United Nations’ special Representative and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau) continued his mission for independence for his country. Having assisted Roger East in his quest to discover the truth, Horta was nominated to plead his country’s case in exile at the United Nations, and left the country days before the Indonesian invasion.

The real Jose Ramos Horta had significant input into his portrayal in the film. Connolly visited East Timor several times while writing the screenplay’s later drafts, but finding an actor to embody the infectiously charismatic young Horta was no easy task. It was suggested that the director seek out Oscar Isaac, who at the time was treading the boards of Broadway. Connolly flew to New York, saw Isaac’s performance in the play Grace, and, during “a big night out on the town”, offered him the role. “I needed an actor who could convey the intelligence and the charisma of a man who in real life went on to win the Nobel Prize and became the President of his country,” explained Connolly. “It’s really hard to cast a role like that, and Oscar is a stunning actor.”

Oscar Isaac in Balibo.

Having Isaac meet with Horta during pre-production to research the role also proved a challenge. The increasingly in-demand Isaac was off filming the historical drama Agora alongside Rachel Weisz, and also Ridley Scott’s Body Of Lies. Meanwhile, Horta was recovering from a 2008 assassination attempt. “Oscar actually did a huge amount of research into Ramos Horta,” explained Connolly.

Horta and Isaac finally met during the filming of one of Balibo’s most anguished and moving scenes, as Horta and East make the grim discovery of the aftermath of a massacre. Robert Connolly: “He watched us filming that scene. Afterwards, we all hung out and had some photos taken. It was really quite special. He was so funny. He said, ‘Well, I guess if George Clooney isn’t available, Oscar will do’,” chuckles the director. “He really developed a great friendship with Oscar, and was really happy with his performance.”

A 1976 photo of Indonesian troops at the house in which The Balibo Five died.

THE BALIBO FIVE ON FILM

As the conflict in East Timor rapidly escalates, a crew from the ABC is already on the scene, with the Channel 7 team of Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley) and Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter) hot on its heels, and the Channel 9 crew of Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips) and Brian Peters (Thomas Wright) scrambling to keep up. Driven initially by rivalry and the gung-ho energy of chasing a scoop, all become profoundly determined to tell of East Timor’s plight, most poignantly exemplified by a monologue-to-camera by Shackleton. “With Greg, the country got under his skin,” actor, Damon Gameau, told FilmInk of his screen counterpart just prior to Balibo‘s release. “By the time he films his monologue, he’s subjectively saying, ‘Why isn’t Australia doing something?’ down the barrel of the camera. It was unbelievable journalism even for today, let alone for a guy in the seventies.”

In casting The Balibo Five, Connolly was looking for actors with attributes that extended far beyond physical similarities. “I wanted to capture the essence of these guys. We tried to avoid the danger of casting actors that were significantly older, because we wanted to show that youthful sense of adventure and charisma that young guys have. I needed very skilled actors who were willing to go to East Timor and film. Before we auditioned, we sent out a letter to all the agents saying, ‘Can you please let the actors know that it’s a Category 4 travel warning to go to East Timor. Don’t audition if you’re not up for it.’”

Damon Gameau relished the opportunity to play Greg Shackleton, the most determined and ambitious of The Balibo Five. “It was a gift. The responsibility of portraying someone with such courage…you don’t often get that.”

Connolly arranged for each actor to meet with family members of the journalists that they were portraying. Gameau spent three days with Shackleton’s wife Shirley, a “strange process” but one equally as profound. “She was really feeling me out as to my integrity, and what the film meant to me,” Gameau told FilmInk. “I can’t even pretend to fathom for a second what it would be like to see a young guy who vaguely resembles your husband at the same age appear 34 years later. We very quickly gelled really well. Right from the get-go, Shirley said, ‘Greg had detractors. He was fiercely ambitious, he was very driven, and people in the newsroom didn’t like him. That’s him. If you want to show aspects of that, then show it.’ That liberated me; I thought, ‘I’m not treading on anyone’s toes here. I can actually try and portray a rounded, three-dimensional character.’ Rob really trusted the research that we’d done, so he was very open to us suggesting things. If I said, ‘Greg would do this’, Rob would say ‘Great, let’s film it.’ It was a fully collaborative approach.”

Damon Gameau in Balibo.

In July of 2008, the cast and crew travelled to East Timor to begin the two-month shoot. Before they knew it, the actors cast as The Balibo Five were truly thrown in at the deep end. “The actors got off the plane in Dili, and I was filming them within twenty minutes,” explained Connolly of his guerilla approach. “I wanted to film them getting the hit of the first time you go to East Timor. There were no rehearsals. I just said, ‘Okay, and…Action’!”

Following in the footsteps of The Balibo Five added an indelible veracity to the cast’s experience and performance. “The UN had an old Russian chopper that took most of the crew up to Balibo, but myself and the cast just drove up there in these old four-wheel-drives, like the guys did,” Connolly told FilmInk. “We wanted to get a sense of retracing the journey, and of what had happened to these men back in 1975. That was part of the magic of the experience. Nathan Phillips and Thomas Wright came to me one day. They’d found this tree which is a key feature in the back of a news piece that Malcolm had done in 1975 in Dili. They were so excited. ‘This is where they filmed it,’ they screamed. ‘We’ve got to film here!’ I loved the spirit of that.”

On the eve of filming the chillingly re-enacted murder of The Balibo Five, the five actors slept in the very same house that the journalists had 34 years earlier on the night before their deaths. A candle light vigil was held in memory of the slain newsmen. “It transcended anything that you would perceive acting to be,” a deeply moved Gameau told FilmInk.  “It was very emotional for all of us…a really emotional experience. Shooting the murders was harrowing. You know this person so well, and you’ve embodied them for such a long period of time. The mood on the whole set was just horrific. We were watching people being killed all day, and it was the last day of filming. In a sense, it was the end of our journey as well. It had a very, very strong effect on us.”

Damon Gameau had many discussions with his cast mates about whether or not the journalists were reckless in their pursuit of the truth. “You’ve got to remember that these guys were 28; they were gung ho. This was their moment; they were on the ground getting their hands dirty. The Balibo Five never would have suspected that they’d be killed.”

Mark Leonard Winter and Gyton Grantley in Balibo.

FACT MEETS FICTION

In creating a feature film based on real events, the makers of Balibo introduced fictional elements inspired by history. “I had a responsibility to look at the underlying truth of all the scenes, and make sure that we got the sense of it, rather than being trapped by a documentary-style, historic detail,” Connolly told FilmInk.

The film’s framing character of Bea Viegas’ Juliana is representative of almost 8,000 testimonies of life under Indonesian rule given to the Timor-Leste Commission For Reception, Truth And Reconciliation. While the journey to Balibo undertaken by East and Horta is a fictional interpretation, it represents Horta’s real life journey to find witnesses to the Australian journalists’ deaths. “Interestingly, Horta had no problem with this when I showed him the script early on,” Connolly revealed. “He said that there was nothing in it that wasn’t true to the experiences that they had. On the issue of history versus fiction, the murder of the men and the massacre on the pier were the two events that I didn’t want to fictionalise. We had the information to make it as close to what we know happened as possible. Audiences who don’t really know what happened to The Balibo Five can see this film and discover what happened.”

Bea Viegas in Balibo.

The filmmakers felt a keen responsibility to portray the events of 1975 as accurately as possible. At different points during the production, eight different researchers were on hand to ensure a rigorous approach. Robert Connolly: “I was always thinking about the film Gallipoli. That’s the film about those events. When you’re dealing with historic events, there’s always a sense of, ‘Will this be the film about these events? I’ve got to get it right.’ That responsibility weighed heavily on all of us, and forced us to be very rigorous about how we treated these historic events.”

Connolly says that the reality of filming in East Timor was vastly different from the severe travel warnings of the time, no doubt spurred along by the 2008 assassination attempt on Jose Ramos Horta, just months before filming began. With a modest Australian crew joined by a contingent of East Timorese working in various production roles, the team kept a low profile. Everyone, no matter what their star status, embraced the simple life. “It’s the poorest country in South East Asia. You know how the film industry is renowned for the excessive ways that it treats its celebrities? There was just none of that.”

For LaPaglia, it was a liberating experience. “The great thing was that, although I’m a bit of a tech head – I like my computer and I like my phones – I had to drop everything for the most basic form of living. Even going to the bathroom was a whole new thing. When you’re out in the woods wiping your butt with leaves, you know that you’re in a different place!”

Damon Gameau in Balibo.

PULL NO PUNCHES

Just prior to the film’s release, Connolly and LaPaglia made no apology for the political nature of Balibo. They had little patience for the Indonesian Government when it raised concerns early in the film’s development that its perspective would not be portrayed. “I felt a little frustrated by those comments, because what we’re trying to do is show what actually happened,” said Connolly in 2009. “I’m not really interested in the Indonesian and Australian governments’ point of view.”

LaPaglia was even more terse. “It suited a number of people for the story to fade away, including the Indonesian Government, who were none too pleased that the movie was being made. My response to that is, ‘Go make your version. If you’re worried about being represented incorrectly, then by all means, go make your own movie.’”

Connolly and LaPaglia were most outspoken, however, about the Whitlam-led government’s failure to oppose the Indonesian invasion, and its impotence in pursuing any form of recourse for the murders of The Balibo Five. “Pragmatic foreign policy at the expense of human tragedy,” Connolly frowned of the motives of the government at the time. “The journalists were killed on October 16. The Australian government should have scrutinised with great rigor and toughness the incidents surrounding the murder of those five men, and they didn’t. Subsequently, Roger East’s death happened on December 8 in broad daylight in front of hundreds of people. The Indonesian government didn’t even get rapped over the knuckles by the Australian government; it’s just staggering. Here we are 34 years later, and the current government is deliberating about whether or not to honour the findings of the coronial inquiry into the deaths. That’s all part of why I made Balibo. What is it that drives you to make cinema? You need a fire in your gut. It was the toughest and most amazing experience of my filmmaking career, but you need something else to motivate you.”

Anthony LaPaglia, Robert Connolly, and Jose Ramos Horta at MIFF in 2009.

LaPaglia, meanwhile, reflected on the profound impact that East Timor and the film had on him. “Not just from a filmmaking point of view, but from a personal point of view – and I’ve never really said this about any project that I’ve done before – it was a life altering experience for me,” he said, before recalling one of his favourite memories: playing soccer with East Timorese kids on the beach at dawn. “At some point, I’d like to go back and contribute to that place in a more meaningful way.”

Damon Gameau was also deeply affected. “It may come across as an actor being wanky, but when you’ve spent time with a family and you’re representing a loved one, it’s unbelievable how it affects you emotionally.”

Connolly revealed that the families of The Balibo Five reacted well to the film, as did the East Timorese cast and crew. “In Timor, there was a sense of people just being really overwhelmed by it emotionally. To screen it 100 feet from where the invasion of Dili actually happened was quite significant, and very moving. It’s the first film to tell the story of East Timor. Jose Ramos Horta thanked me profoundly for telling the story of his country.”

Damon Gameau, Gyton Grantley, Robert Connolly, Mark Leonard Winter, Thomas M. Wright and Nathan Phillips at MIFF in 2009.

Excited just prior to the film’s release, the director admitted that Australia’s failure to face this dark chapter of its history remains a concern, yet he was largely positive about the film’s reaction. “If we can’t apply the blowtorch to the events of 1975 and really scrutinise it, then we’re in an absurd predicament. Other cultures deal with their history quite quickly. There were films about the Vietnam War being made within a year of it ending. I just have to assume that our governments are big enough to deal with the truth of things that happened that long ago. The fact that successive governments on both sides of politics have hidden the truth shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the current political regimes in both Indonesia and Australia are willing to acknowledge it. Maybe 2009 is the year…maybe this story is finally going to come to the fore and be dealt with.”

Balibo had its world premiere at The Melbourne International Film Festival (the film was partially financed through The MIFF Premiere Fund) on 24 July 2009 at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. Then President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta was there for the screening, and in an impassioned address, clearly stated that The Balibo Five were tortured and killed by Indonesian forces. “It is better,” Ramos-Horta said of the situation in East Timor. “Indonesian democracy today is one of the most inspiring in the south-east Asia region.” The premiere was also attended by the families of The Balibo Five.

Balibo went on to enjoy critical praise and a fairly strong showing at the Australian box office. “Balibo positively seethes and pulses with a rich vein of anger,” ran FilmInk’s review of the film, which ultimately scored AFI Awards for Best Actor (LaPaglia), Best Supporting Actor (Isaac), Best Screenplay (Connolly), and Best Editing (Nick Meyers) from a whopping thirteen nominations. “Though virtually right on our doorstep, what happened in East Timor was barely reported in Australia, and this deeply moving, utterly compelling and finely crafted film at last redresses that imbalance, and is admirable for both its political kick and filmmaking finesse.”

Tellingly, Balibo – which was set to screen at The Jakarta Film Festival in 2009 – was banned in Indonesia…

Balibo will screen at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 19 at 1:30pm. Rob Connolly will introduce the film and take part in a post-screening Q&A. For all details and to buy tickets, head to the official website.

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