The film, being screened at the Melbourne film festival next month and due for general release in August, is an indictment of successive Australian governments.
And New Zealand authorities are also bound to be embarrassed by the chilling story of political betrayal and death.
Five journalists – including a New Zealander – working for Australian television networks – were killed in the border village of Balibo on 16 October 1975 and a sixth in the capital of Dili eight weeks later.
Indonesian special forces led by Yunus Yosfiah murdered Australian-based journalists Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham (a New Zealander), Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, who were reporting on Indonesia’s then covert invasion of East Timor.
Roger East, who went to investigate their deaths, was also murdered in Dili during the formal invasion, on December 7 – he was among 86 people summarily executed on the Dili wharf and their bodies dumped in the sea.
The military commanders involved in these atrocities today lead lives of impunity in spite of their crimes.
Director Robert Connolly unveiled some of the footage in a preview of his film at the recent 58th World Press Institute conference in Helsinki, Finland, earlier this month.
Balibo tells the story of the six murders through the eyes of war correspondent Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia) and a young José Ramos-Horta (now President of Timor-Leste).
In 2007, New South Wales deputy coroner Dorelle Pinch ruled that the Balibo five were deliberately killed by Indonesian troops to cover up the invasion of East Timor.
Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury, of Geelong’s Deakin University Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights, writes:
As a movie, Balibo is confronting, heart-wrenching, and raises a sense of legitimate anger. These responses parallel how many Australians responded to events in East Timor in 1999, when by their numbers they compelled the Australian government to finally intervene.
Such responses also parallel how many Australians felt in 1975, and in the years since. If the concerns of 1975 faded, it was because our governments so effectively covered-up the truth of these events, and the horrors subsequently perpetrated upon the people of East Timor. The Indonesian government led that complicity, culminating in the carnage and its ignominious departure from East Timor in 1999. But our own governments, under Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard, participated in that complicity.
The movie Balibo also captures the reality that East Timor’s people were just ordinary human beings caught in terrible circumstances. The scenes, too, in the forests and of streams, over the steep mountains and of the sea and sky are so accurate because they are East Timor. Dili’s emblematic Hotel Turismo had, and retains, the atmosphere of a Graeme Greene novel.
Balibo’s critics will attack it not for its art, but citing that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is, these days, positive, and East Timor is now an independent state with its own aspirations and struggles. What they are unlikely to admit it that the problems that East Timor has endured since independence have been rooted in its brutal past.