Cinematographer Tristan Milani and Robert Connolly on the set of Balibo

Telling the Truth

Robert Connolly on Making Balibo

Balibo reveals the human side of a particularly sensitive and controversial episode in Australia’s foreign policy history. Co-writer and director Robert Connolly speaks to Ghita Loebenstein.

Robert Connolly is one of the Australian film industry’s preeminent multi-talents. As producer and one half of Arenafilm, he helped bring The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998), The Monkey’s Mask (Samantha Lang, 2000), West (Daniel Krige, 2007) and Romulus, My Father (Richard Roxburgh, 2007) to the screen. As writer and director (The Bank [2001], Three Dollars [2005]) he concentrates on telling intrinsically Australian stories with a passion for extracting his characters’ moral centre. 

Connolly continues this focus with Balibo, delving into the story of five Australian-based journalists killed during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, and that of lauded foreign correspondent Roger East who went to investigate their deaths. Starring Anthony LaPaglia as East and newcomer Oscar Isaacs as the young José Ramos-Horta, Balibo will open the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival and was partially funded by the MIFF Premiere Fund.

GL: What brought you to the story, and why was Balibo your next film?

RC: My AFTRS graduating film was written by Tony Maniaty, the ABC journalist who went to Balibo. He told me about his experiences in Timor as a 26-year-old and I was stunned. This was 1992 and I didn’t know about the Balibo Five. Like a lot of people, it really hadn’t entered my knowledge of Australian history. I hadn’t made anything yet so I just assumed I couldn’t do it and put it aside. Then about two years after I’d made The Bank, Anthony LaPaglia brought me Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five. Anthony and I had been hoping to do a film together and that began my journey of researching Balibo and trying to work this very complicated story into a film.

What did you know of the Balibo Five and the circumstances surrounding that incident before you started developing the film?

My knowledge had come quite a long way in terms of the story of the Balibo Five, how their deaths had been covered up, that they had been clearly murdered by Indonesian soldiers and yet successive governments had denied that. Yet I didn’t have the bigger context of what befell East Timor in 1975 and what had happened to Roger East in the massacre on the Dili wharf the day Indonesia invaded. Another six Australian journalists had been murdered there too, along with hundreds of Timorese. So the story opened out for me as we were developing it. 

Did that opening-out process happen when David Williamson came on board as screenwriter and how did the script develop?

David wrote the early draft of the film, and then I wrote the later stages and along the way I went to Timor so the script went on its journey. It was interesting how the script development paralleled the journey the characters went on. I think both Greg Shackleton [one of the Balibo Five] and Roger East went to East Timor with certain motivations but along the way the country cast its spell on them and they began to more profoundly care for this nation. In some ways I feel that the screenplay went on the same journey. At first it was just the Balibo Five story but after going to Timor, meeting the Timorese and talking about the Balibo Five in the context of their own national story, it broadened the film as well. 

How many trips did you make to East Timor in development?

I made three trips to establish different elements. I went initially to find out about the practicality of filming there. In Balibo there is an amazing 400-year-old Portuguese fort. It wasn’t until I went to Balibo that I thought, ‘Great, we can film the scenes where we hypothesise the journalists shot the invasion from in the fort.’ That country then casts its magic on you. You can’t help but care for a country that in the face of great tragedy remains a very optimistic nation. It’s a hugely young, emerging country. As a father too, seeing the children and the poverty in which they live is really quite affecting.

Did the Timorese welcome your presence and the filming of their story?

We couldn’t have made it without the Timorese people opening their doors to us. On that first trip, I went to José Ramos-Horta’s house and I talked to him about how he was a character in the film. We needed to get the keys to the kingdom from the President too! But the Timorese people themselves were very keen to help and become involved. They feel very strongly that the deaths of the Balibo Five are part of their national story. They believe that the deaths of the Balibo Five are what kept the story alive in the Australian psyche, which ultimately led to Australia being involved in the independence of East Timor in 1999.

You’re about to show the film to José Ramos-Horta in Dili. Was he involved in the film’s development?

He read the script and visited us on set. He came on the day we shot the massacre and he became part of the film. He was also very helpful. He told me things about his past to get detail in the script about what happened in 1975. He was amazing in terms of being very open about what happened.

There are so many issues at play here – not least the basic politics, the negligence of the TV stations and government knowingly sending the boys in like lambs to the slaughter, the beginnings of José Ramos-Horta’s career, the ethics of journalism … Was there something in particular that you really wanted to highlight and bring to people’s attention here?

I firstly and foremost feel quite strongly that the truth must always be told and it’s the job of future generations to scrutinise the past in order to move forward. So for thirty-four years Australians have been told that these men died in crossfire. That’s the official line even today, even though a coroner made a recommendation in 2007 that certain Indonesians be charged with the murders of these men. So thirty-four years down the track, the truth has been concealed along with the truth of what happened to East Timor under Indonesian rule, the tragedy that befell this nation and the execution of hundreds of Timorese.

We scrutinise history through historians, journalists and through cinema. Cinema has been this amazing way of applying the blowtorch to historic events without the constraints of documentary. It allows you to hypothesise and bring all of your research to bear that in many ways cut to the bone of whatever it is about the human condition that has led to the event. For me it was like an attempt to be part of a process of tearing back the lies and deception and political expediency that we’ve had for thirty-four years.

In revealing the truth that you’ve found and in telling the events as you’ve told them, was there an element of red tape and walking on eggshells on the Australian side?

Interestingly, no. We wrote the script before the coroner’s findings and the findings supported the conclusions we came to about how they were all murdered. I think the murders of the Balibo Five and Roger East are so generally accepted as something the government lied to us about that we didn’t come across the stumbling blocks that you’d expect. It’s almost like there’s a convergence of things – the coroner’s findings, Tony Maniaty’s book [Shooting Balibo], Jill is republishing her book – and it feels like this year is the year it’s all coming together. It would be embarrassing for Australia to leave this year with so many elements converging, with no resolution to what happened. 


Was the script originally based on Jill’s book? What other reference material did you use?

It was one of the first references and one that we optioned in development. Jill had done a huge amount of research, including going to Balibo; taking witnesses back there; recreating scenes; having people walk out, show where people were killed. Her rigour and scrutiny of events was something we always felt we needed to underpin the film, to give it some authority. Then there are the other layers of research and consultants. We used a consultant historian from the Australian Defence Force Academy, Tony Maniaty, a team of researchers scrutinising history. In 2005 the thirty-year rule came up so all the documents from 1975 that were protected under the laws of parliament were released. So we had a researcher go through those, trying to make sense of all the tables and documents that the government had access to at the time. It was a pretty thorough period of research and scrutiny during the development of the script. 

As it was a work of fiction, I was inspired by the film The Queen [Stephen Frears, 2006], which was a hypothetical look at the conversations between the Queen and Tony Blair after the death of Princess Diana. You could only ponder what they said to each other and it makes for great drama and is in no way a less important historic document of that event. It’s interesting territory for a filmmaker rather than a documentary maker.

The film is much more than just a telling of the events. It’s about Roger East’s personal struggle – as a journalist, as a man, as an Australian, as a human being. How much of that was already present in the book and material you used, and how much of that did you develop yourself?

We developed a lot of that because in the early drafts Roger East was only a peripheral character, so it was another one of those things where in the evolution of the script he came to the fore, and I think it was inevitable because his journey was quite significant in that he was a very experienced foreign correspondent who was in a hugely well-paid job in public relations for the Darwin Reconstruction Commission after Cyclone Tracy. And then Ramos-Horta did come to him in Darwin and invite him to run the ET [East Timor] News Agency and there was something so fascinating about the story of this man, who was being drawn out of retirement by the possibility of rolling the dice one more time in his life and going to this nearby neighbour and making a difference. He did go there to find out what happened to the Balibo Five. He obviously initially felt a great sadness about the tragedy of their story but in time he actually really cared about that country. I kind of fell in love with the man, following his journey. I understood elements of it. The possibility of achieving more when he probably thought he was going to go fishing and live out a good life in Darwin. Hopefully you feel that in the film because it touched me so much. Anthony and I worked very hard on getting that character’s journey working.

When Anthony approached you all those years ago did he have the role of Roger East in mind?

No, he didn’t actually. He liked the subject matter. It’s interesting. He was more driven by the story as a whole and not even what his role in it would be. Back then it could have been something he produced but wasn’t in. It was nice that it began from an interesting story. But once we found Roger East I was definitely writing it with Anthony in mind, every step of the way.

It seems like it has become thematic for you as a director to investigate the internal struggles of men – and very Australian men at that. What do you enjoy about that investigation particularly?

I was drawn to the parallel journeys of this older man and those younger men with their youthful idealism. I was interested in juxtaposing Roger East as a fifty-year-old guy hanging up his boots and these younger guys just embarking on their lives. I kind of fall between the ages of those men and I became interested in where you fit your own life into those polar places.

That arc of looking at men goes back through your other films as well. They have a particular masculinity about them so it’s become almost a through-line in your work. Are you particularly drawn to exploring the internal life of men, and Australian men at that?

The films are about how men are tested by a world which asks them to turn a blind eye. They question how we can make a difference at this point in history. Balibo is the most political in that respect because it’s a man who makes a choice to stay in a country to tell its story, whereas Eddie in Three Dollars makes a choice to not support something and he ends up losing his job and David Wenham’s character in The Bank commits a terrorist act. But this is what fascinates me about a point in history where I feel like we have to stand up and be accountable for the state of affairs. I like putting men in these situations dramatically, because that interests me more than the minutiae. I like the actors to find the detail and, as you say, explore the nature of them. That might be part of my methodology, which is to force the actors into that place, rather than me setting out to document that through the film. I’m more interested in the characters’ accountability to themselves. Maybe that’s also a reflection of where we’re at too?