Balibo (film)

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Theatrical film poster
Directed by Robert Connolly
Produced by Anthony LaPaglia
Dominic Purcell
Screenplay by Robert Connolly
David Williamson
Based on Cover-Up by
Jill Jolliffe
Starring Anthony LaPaglia
Oscar Isaac
Damon Gameau
Gyton Grantley
Nathan Phillips
Mark Winter
Thomas Wright
Bea Viegas
Music by Lisa Gerrard
Cinematography Tristan Milani
Edited by Nick Meyers
Distributed by Transmission Films
Release dates
  • 24 July 2009 (2009-07-24) (MIFF)
  • 14 August 2009 (2009-08-14) (Australia)
Running time
111 minutes
Country Australia
Language English
Budget $ 4,500,000

Balibo is a 2009 Australian war film that follows the story of the Balibo Five, a group of journalists who were captured and killed whilst reporting on activities just prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor of 1975. While historically accurate, the film is loosely based on the book Cover-Up by Jill Jolliffe, an Australian journalist who met the men before they were killed.

The film follows dishevelled journalist Roger East, played by Anthony LaPaglia, who travels to East Timor in 1975 to investigate the deaths of the Balibo Five during the buildup to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.[1] Oscar Isaac plays the young José Ramos-Horta, who would later receive the Nobel Peace Prize and become the second President of East Timor,[2] who joins East in the movie.

Filming began on 30 June 2008, in Dili, East Timor,[3] and the film was released the following year. It was produced by Arenafilm in Australia with Robert Connolly as director, David Williamson as screenwriter, and Professor Clinton Fernandes as historical consultant.[4][5] LaPaglia, also an Executive Producer, named East as "probably the best role I've ever had".[6]


The story is seen through the eyes of veteran journalist Roger East. Introduced as a once-fearless foreign correspondent now working in PR in Darwin, East is drawn to East Timor by José Ramos-Horta, of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor; then the fledgling republic's charismatic young secretary of foreign affairs. Initially refusing to become involved, East changes his tune after Ramos-Horta shows him photos of five Australian TV reporters missing in the border town of Balibo.

Vignettes then show Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters and Tony Stewart, all under 30, saying goodbye to loved ones and setting out on their assignments a month earlier.

Parallel action follows with the Balibo Five tracked from East Timor's capital to their terrifying end after filming the Indonesian advance, and East and Ramos-Horta retracing their steps through by now extremely dangerous territory. Shackleton's last surviving report is recreated: sitting in a village, he says its inhabitants don't know if they will be alive tomorrow and have asked him why no one in Australia or anywhere else will help.

Drawing attention to the techniques of news gathering and delivery in 1975, the film raises the idea of what might have happened had the Balibo Five not been cut off from communicating with the world and slowed by heavy 16mm film equipment.

Bookended by contemporary scenes of a fictional East Timorese woman remembering East and life under Indonesian occupation, the film closes with a tribute to the nation's rebirth in 1999 and the many tens of thousands of lives lost in the struggle for independence.[6][7]



Director Robert Connolly with historical consultant Professor Clinton Fernandes during the production of Balibo.

Balibo was the first feature film to be made in East Timor. Shooting in Dili began on 31 July 2008, with United Nations police closing off roads, to allow the scenes to be filmed.[8] Gritty 16mm-to-35mm visuals shot at the actual locations where the events took place give a documentary-style texture.[7]

The film's version of events was validated by an Australian coroner in 2007. After a fresh review of the evidence, the coroner ruled that the journalists were executed as they tried to surrender to Indonesian forces. The filmmakers hope that Balibo will spur the Australian government into action. Almost 18 months on, it has not responded to the coroner's findings - a reticence which may stem from its fear of upsetting diplomatic relations with Jakarta.[9] Robert Connolly said that he did not set out to provoke Jakarta but wanted to examine a seminal moment in Indonesia's 24-year occupation of East Timor, when an estimated 183,000 people died: "I think it had to be graphic because otherwise you dangerously dilute what happened."[10]


Rotten Tomatoes gives a score of 100% based on 11 reviews, 81% of audiences like the film.[11]

Balibo received its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 24 July 2009 at Melbourne's Hamer Hall. The then President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta was in attendance and an address alleged that the Balibo Five were tortured and killed by Indonesian forces. On changes over recent years in Indonesia Ramos-Horta said "It is better. Indonesian democracy today is one of the most inspiring in the south-east Asia region."[9] Also in attendance were the families of the Balibo Five. Relatives of Tony Stewart held aloft a banner bearing his name which had been embroidered by East Timorese women.[12] Maureen Tolfree, sister of Brian Peters, said she hoped many Australians would see the film and that she thought " will bring to the Australian public what's gone on," she said.[13]

Variety's Richard Kuipers dubbed the film "a tense, character-driven thriller with political comment on the side, allowing viewers with little or no prior knowledge of the subject matter to engage instinctively with the Balibo Five," filmed where it happened and "packing a huge emotional punch". Kuipers continues: "LaPaglia is particularly good as the weary scribe who slowly rediscovers his old fire, and Isaac sparks off him impressively as the younger man whose ability to read people is as sharp as his political acumen."[7]

Screen International's Frank Hatherley opined: "Shot on location with loving attention to period detail, the film's take on these long-buried events is convincing. Connolly's three strands are expertly woven together, coming to twin climaxes where terror and cruelty overwhelm everyone. These ‘killing field' scenes are not for the squeamish."[6]

The Monthly's Luke Davies wrote: "Jill Jollife's book ... argues that the Australian government has always known the exact circumstances of the newsmen's deaths. Connolly doesn't try to answer such questions, but rather lets them echo in the film." Davies commended Connolly and co-screenwriter David Williamson for having "crafted an engaging film in which we come to care about the destiny of an entire people as well as for individual characters", and that "the film's denouement is terrifying", making it a realistic and confronting experience.[14]

Box office[edit]

Balibo grossed $1,330,863 at the box office in Australia.[15]


Award Category Subject Result
AACTA Awards
(2009 AFI Awards)
Best Film Anthony LaPaglia Nominated
Dominic Purcell Nominated
Best Direction Robert Connolly Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Won
David Williamson Won
Best Actor Anthony LaPaglia Won
Best Supporting Actor Damon Gameau Nominated
Oscar Isaac Won
Best Supporting Actress Bea Viegas Nominated
Best Cinematography Tristan Milani Nominated
Best Editing Nick Meyers Won
Best Original Music Score Lisa Gerrard Nominated
Best Sound Ann Aucote Nominated
Emma Bortignon Nominated
Phil Heywood Nominated
Sam Petty Nominated
Best Production Design Robert Cousins Nominated
Best Costume Design Cappi Ireland Nominated
ADG Award Best Direction in a Feature Film Robert Connolly Nominated
APRA Award[16][17][18] Best Film Score Lisa Gerrard Won
ARIA Music Award Best Original Soundtrack Album Won
ASE Award Best Editing in a Feature Film Nick Meyers Nominated
FCCA Awards Best Film Anthony LaPaglia Nominated
Dominic Purcell Nominated
Best Director Robert Connolly Nominated
Best Screenplay Nominated
David Williamson Nominated
Best Actor - Male Anthony LaPaglia Won
Best Supporting Actor - Male Damon Gameau Nominated
Oscar Isaac Nominated
Best Cinematography Tristan Milani Nominated
Best Editing Nick Meyers Won
Best Music Score Lisa Gerrard Won
Inside Film Awards Best Feature Film Anthony LaPaglia Nominated
Dominic Purcell Nominated
Robert Connolly Nominated
Best Script Nominated
David Williamson Nominated
Best Actor Anthony LaPaglia Nominated
Best Cinematography Tristan Milani Nominated
Best Editing Nick Meyers Won
Best Music Lisa Gerrard Nominated
Best Sound Ann Aucote Won
Emma Bortignon Won
Phil Heywood Won
Sam Petty Won
Screen Music Award, Australia Best Feature Film Score Lisa Gerrard Won
São Paulo International Film Festival Audience Award for Best Foreign Feature Film Robert Connolly Won

Indonesian ban[edit]

The film was to have premiered in Indonesia at the 2009 Jakarta International Film Festival. However, in advance of a private screening, the film was banned by the Indonesian Film Censorship Agency. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the ban was to avoid a negative "global perception of Indonesia". The Indonesian military supported the ban, with a spokesman saying the film could harm Indonesia's relations with Timor Leste and Australia. He also repeated the official version of events, namely that the journalists were killed in a crossfire, and not by Indonesian troops.[19][20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "LaPaglia leads Balibo five thriller cast". ABC. 28 September 2007. 
  2. ^ "BALIBO IN PRODUCTION". Urban Cinefile. 3 July 2008. 
  3. ^ "Movie stars looking to bed with Darwin locals". ABC. 29 April 2008. 
  4. ^ "Robert Connolly producer / director / writer". Arena Film. 2 March 2007. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c
  7. ^ a b c Kuipers, Richard (23 July 2009). "Balibo Movie Review". Variety. 
  8. ^ "E Timor capital shuts down for film invasion remake". Agence France Presse]. 31 July 2008. 
  9. ^ a b "Indonesia 'tortured' Balibo Five". BBC News. 24 July 2009. Retrieved 26 April 2010. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ Balibo at Rotten Tomatoes
  12. ^ "Balibo premiere". The Age. Melbourne. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Robert Connolly's 'Balibo', Luke Davies, August 2009
  15. ^ Film Victoria - Australian Films at the Australian Box Office
  16. ^ "Screen Awards". Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA). Archived from the original on 25 March 2010. Retrieved 23 April 2010. 
  17. ^ "Winners - Screen Music Awards". Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA). Archived from the original on 25 May 2010. Retrieved 28 April 2010. 
  18. ^ "Nominations - Screen Music Awards". Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA). Archived from the original on 25 May 2010. Retrieved 28 April 2010. 
  19. ^ "Australian Film 'Balibo' Banned by Indonesian Censors". The Jakarta Globe. 1 December 2009. Archived from the original on 5 December 2009. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 
  20. ^ Markus Junianto Sihaloho & Putri Prameshwari (2 December 2009). "'Balibo' Ban Wins Rave Reviews From Indonesian Military". The Jakarta Globe. Archived from the original on 26 December 2009. Retrieved 1 December 2009. 

External links[edit]