In Conversation with… Sabian Wilde

Marketing Lecturer. Writer. Music Bod. Claims to have coined 'Perthonality'

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IN CONVERSATION WITH… ROBERT CONNOLLY

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Robert Connolly is fast becoming an important figure in Australian cinema, both as a producer and a director. In 2001 he received a Centenary Medal (marking 100 years since Federation) for services to the Australian Film Industry, just four years since the debut of his first feature film as a producer, The Boys.

As a director, he has released The Bank and Three Dollars (both starring David Wenham) and his latest feature Balibo, which tells the story of the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975 through the lives and deaths of six members of the Australian media – a story that flatly contradicts the official version of events that has been maintained by the governments of Indonesia and Australia for more than thirty years.

In Perth for a special ‘Talking Pictures’ Q&A preview at Luna in Leederville, Connolly met with Sabian Wilde for X-Press Magazine to discuss the making of Balibo.

Robert Connolly

Robert Connolly


First of all, congratulations on Balibo, it’s an amazing piece of work. How did you find out about the story and what drove you to bring it to the screen?

I found out about it back when I was 26 from Tony Maniaty, who was the ABC journalist in the film. Tony wrote the short film that launched my career, Mr Ikegami’s Flight. He was on a literary board attachment at the AFTRS where I was studying and he told me the story – I couldn’t believe it – then of what had happened to him when he was much younger.
But I didn’t pursue it as a film until many years later, when Anthony La Paglia brought me Jill Joliffe’s book Cover-Up. Anthony and I had been looking for something to do together after The Bank, and I guess initially it began a journey of wanting to tell the story of the Balibo Five, but then ultimately, by going to East Timor and getting to know that country and the experience of being there, falling in love with the country and wanting to tell the story of the tragedy that befell East Timor as well.
I think it’s a journey that parallels the way a lot of Australians find out about East Timor through the Balibo Five, and then learn more about what happened to that country.


There’s a scene in the film in which a young José Ramos-Horta [now President of Timor-Leste] and Roger East [veteran Australian journalist] have a fight about whether the Australian media cared about the plight of the Timorese and East replies, “Yes, I do care about those people, but my readers don’t”… Obviously, Horta knew that the journalist’s experience would raise awareness of his people’s position, but it does raise questions: If Horta is one of the central figures in the story of the Balibo Five, why hasn’t the story been told until now? It’s not as if he’s been quiet for the last thirty years.

I wanted to show that aspect – as a politician early in his career, he knew the value the journalists would have in telling the story. This was late in 1975, and we know that one of the reasons Vietnam came to an end in early 1975 was because journalists got footage out, which turned public opinion against the war.
This would have been very much in Ramos-Horta’s mind; this idea that these journalists could help his nation’s cause. I think the ideals of the politician that he was to become isn’t quite evident, in that there are times when you’re not sure of his motivation, but I think it does become clear that his motivation is to save his nation at whatever cost.
That’s why that scene with him and Anthony [LaPaglia, Roger East] fighting is really interesting – I think Australians have to ask, ‘Would we have cared as much about East Timor and helped it become independent in 1999 if five Australian-based guys hadn’t been killed there in ’75 and the story hadn’t stayed alive in our national story as a result’?

It’s interesting to look back at that time and see what has changed and what has stayed the same. The rivalry between Nine and Seven – it’s not until the Timorese ask them why the invasion is happening that they realise that the imperative has changed from the ‘news imperative’ of being first to the ‘journalistic imperative’ of telling the truth…

That’s why in the morning, you see them sharing and hiding footage together for the first time. In my mind, that’s when they became the Balibo Five; when they woke up that morning, and it didn’t matter what network they were from because the story had become bigger than any of their own personal ambitions or rivalries. They became a collection of Australian-based guys who found themselves in a point in history with the possibility of documenting this invasion.

East’s character was introduced after you’d already decided to do the film, but apart from the gravitas La Paglia has, I think there’s a real advantage to the story in having the older journalist included… just in terms of how young, and how little the Five knew. That point at which it goes from gung-ho to the point where they realize its not a game, and they’ve lost – so badly.

I think the age issue in the film is really important. When I was casting the young men, I tried to find actors of similar ages. Often you have stars in their thirties who can play people in their twenties, that’s the tradition. I wanted people to watch the film and think, ‘God! They were so young!’ Also, it highlights the contrast between the young journalists and Roger East, who was 52. I think the age was very important to the telling of the story.

With The Bank, you created a carefully constructed suspense thriller, and an intense character study with Three Dollars; when you’re attempting to tell a ‘true story’ such as Balibo, you obviously have to serve the narrative in a different kind of way…

It’s like an evolution through my work, trying to move away, actually, from the sort of storytelling I was doing with The Bank. It’s interesting being here, with that homeless thing [ABC 720 Drop Your Jocks] that’s happening in the malls. In Three Dollars, the scenes in the homeless refuge was the beginning of me thinking about a whole way of working with non-actors. The whole philosophy is to observe the drama with the camera, rather than construct the drama.
We set up the drama with real people in real places, and put our actors in that situation and then observe them with the camera; we get a sort of visceral authenticity from that. Part of that was taking the actors to East Timor and to Balibo, in an attempt to get them emotionally into that headspace.

The production notes say you had access to Balibo Five journalist Greg Shackleton’s East Timor diaries – how did they get unearthed?

The Indonesian Government handed over a whole heap of personal belonging to the Australian Government after their death, including a box of bones which were buried in Jakarta. That’s how the diaries got back… and they’re really comprehensive. Damon Gameau used it as a guide to his character. It was an incredible resource to have, those diaries and some of the letters that the men sent back.

Because they’re so young when they die, I’d already started thinking of Breaker Morant – it has that kind of ‘shoot straight you bastards’ emotional depth, even though there’s no dialogue in that scene… and then you surpass it with the death of Roger East … You’ve created an incredible moment in Australian cinema.

It was a very particular choice in the death of the five men not to use slow motion, not to use any of those cinematic techniques; it’s just a brutal, observational thing. I didn’t know if it would work when we were doing it – the danger is that its in the film, and if you just have brutal, simple coverage of it, does it just dissipate the tension? The Hollywood thing to do is to ramp up the tension, slo-mo of knives going in and out. But the observational style did work, although I wasn’t sure until the edit.

You’ve chosen to tell a true, untold story, which means you have a strong obligation to keep to the facts wherever possible… but in the climax, I have to ask; was East really separated from everyone else when he was murdered on the pier?

Well, they had a kind of process line on the pier, killing hundreds and hundreds of people. They liked to shoot people in the back of the head, but he refused, he looked them in the face and they pushed him up against the pier, and he just refused. There were guards telling him to turn around, but in the edit, it seemed to work better to stay on him screaming ‘no’ and witnessing the horror that was happening to the East Timorese.
There were lots of witnesses to his murder. That’s the only thing that two Australian Government enquiries have confirmed – there’s no doubt that he was murdered on that pier.

The film weaves three timelines together, two of which are just weeks apart. In a sense, it kind of maintains the ambiguity of Ramos-Horta’s motivations as you discover he’s been involved with all of the journalists… Has Ramos-Horta seen the film?

Yes, he came to the Melbourne Film Festival opening and I sat next to him. He was very affected by it and he got up on stage and made this amazing speech. He said, ‘this film makes me feel the great tragedy of the atrocities post WWII’; he spoke of the film in terms of the greater question of how it is that human beings can do this to each other. It was such a moving speech, he talked off-the-cuff for twenty minutes and everyone was silent… it was very moving. He’s been so supportive, and it was great to have him up on stage with the families of the Five – it was incredible.

It’s an Australian story, but one would think it would be very significant to the Timorese as well… the production of Balibo was structured to provide additional support to the Timorese so that they can tell their own stories. How did that work?

Yes, we have a shared history… there were a layer of trainees throughout the production. I had a trainee Timorese director, and every department had a Timorese trainee. Part of our process was to make sure that when we left, there would be a team able to keep making film. I believe there’s a television series they’re going to make up there. It would be wonderful to see them going forward, but it was also incredibly helpful to us. My trainee director knew the people, spoke the language and was able to advise us on cultural issues I may not understand, or wouldn’t have even known without him.

How has this story not been told?

It’s staggering, really. Gallipoli took 70 years to make – Breaker Morant took 90… this is 34 years, which I guess you could consider to be quick. But why has it taken so long? That’s an interesting question. But I don’t know the answer.

You’ve received funding from the Australian Film Commission for Balibo, so you’re receiving funds from a Government to tell a story that they still deny or do not acknowledge?

We’ll wait and see what happens this year… The coroner has made findings that the Five were murdered. Those findings have gone to the Attorney-General and are now with the Australian Federal Police. The Australian Government is going to have to make at least a decision on whether they accept the findings of the coroner that they were murdered.
And they clearly were – the coroner was very rigorous in her findings. With our legal system, it’s very rarely – if ever – that a Government would stand up and have a conflict of view with the coroner… that’s not how it works. That’s going to happen in the next month or so, so we’ll soon see.

You’ve worked on this project for a long time, but it sounds like that the release of this film is in some sense the beginning, that the film will play a role in helping the story resolve itself.

I hope so. I hope it plays a role in telling the truth – a lot of people don’t know what happened there. I’m hoping this will be a chance to see the truth of what happened.

Just as a matter of trivia – The Boys was 98, and you won an award for your contribution to Australian cinema in 2002… that’s pretty quick!

[laughs] Well, I’m still contributing.

BALIBO – Freedom and the Press

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Balibo Film Review – originally published in X-Press Magazine.

Directed by Robert Connolly
Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac, Damon Gameau, Gyton Grantley, Nathan Phillips, Thomas Wright, Mark Leonard Winter.

The year is 1975, and rumours of a pending invasion of East Timor by Indonesia have begun to gain a small amount of attention in Australia. Just as the ABC TV news team is preparing to leave, declaring the situation too dangerous, two rival news crews from commercial stations arrive and are directed by the Timorese to Balibo, situated against the Timor-Indonesia border.

Days later, the five members of these rival crews are declared dead. The Indonesian Government reports that the men were killed in crossfire. The Australian Government accepts this story and does not intervene when Indonesian forces invade and occupy East Timor.

More than thirty years later, using a range of sources including the testimony of thousands of Timorese interviewed for the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, the 2008 Glebe Coronial Inquest into the death of the five men and the reclaimed diary of one of the journalists, director Robert Connolly has attempted to recreate the final days of the men who would become known as the Balibo Five.

Anthony LaPaglia as Roger East

Anthony LaPaglia as Roger East

Cinematically, Connolly has worked his way into Balibo with the story of veteran Australian journalist Roger East –powerfully portrayed by Anthony LaPaglia – an aging foreign correspondent who seems resigned to putting his best work behind him and hacking away at his career in Darwin, until he is approached by a young José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) and invited to take up a position as head of the East Timor News Agency.

Although East is unenthusiastic about taking the job, Horta seals the deal by promising him unrestricted access to the full story of the Balibo Five, who had been declared dead just weeks before. The two men travel to Dili, and the film Balibo begins.

Oscar Isaac as José Ramos-Horta

Oscar Isaac as José Ramos-Horta

There is an inherent danger in the cinematic retelling of any ‘true story’, and this danger is always magnified when the story is one that is intended to expose a conspiracy or collusion between governments to keep the public from discovering the truth. On the one hand, the medium demands tension and drama, and on the other, the film-maker has an obligation not to overtly heighten or exaggerate events; the events can’t be changed to serve the story if the purpose of the story is to tell the events.

Connolly has already proven himself to be a masterful suspense/thriller director with his first feature The Bank (also featuring Anthony LaPaglia), which he followed up with the intensely character-driven drama Three Dollars (both starring David Wenham).

Although he is keenly aware of the balancing act required of any cinematic true story, the decision to structure the film through East’s investigation, intercut with dramatisations of the journey and ultimate deaths of the Balibo Five, has provided a classic suspense/thriller of a story.

In terms of characterisation, the relationship between the young Horta and veteran East carries most of the film’s weight, while the arc of the Balibo Five is clearly tragic, transforming from friendly, almost naive rivalry to a true understanding of the situation that they’re in – and more importantly, what it means to the East Timorese people that they’ve come to document.

Balibo is an unapologetically political film that demands the viewer’s attention and involvement – while it purports to tell the truth of actual events, it raises many other questions, such as the involvement of the media in foreign affairs, our complacency as a nation to take a stand in foreign affairs (unless guided by bigger Western nations), and the biggest question of all – why has it taken so long for this story to be told?

Is it a true story? Well, there’s a lot of evidence that supports Connolly’s claim. Is it a good film? No… It’s a great film – possibly one of the great Australian films, in the tradition of (and ranking alongside) Breaker Morant.