This is the seventh film I saw at the 14th Pusan International Film Festival.
It is also the first film made on location in Timor-Leste (or East Timor ... or I guess, in Indonesian, Timor Timor?), and if previous news reports about the newest country in the world hasn't impressed the significance of the horrors the Timorese people have suffered, then this movie sure will. It sure made me hate Indonesians for the duration of the movie.
Really an Australian film, the story is told through the eyes of Roger East, who was past his career prime when a young Jose Ramos-Horta (currently the president of Timor-Leste) contacts him about setting up a free press agency in Timor-Leste, as the Portuguese were about to pull out of the country. Horta warns that the Indonesians are already gearing up to attack. (Opening captions state that Timor-Leste was only independent for 9 days before the Indonesian militia invaded.)
At the same time, there was the matter of 5 Australian journalists from Channel 7 and Channel 9, who disappeared some days ago. Roger East, while initially reluctant to take up Horta's offer, ultimately decides to go, motivated more by the quest to find out what happened to those Australian journalists.
The movie took its time setting up the story, using a framing device where a Timorese woman who was the daughter of the owner of the hotel where Roger East stayed in Dili (that's the capital) recounts what she witnessed during the Indonesian siege, and it was halfway into the film before Roger East fully embarks for the area known as Balibo, where the journalists were last seen.
What he sees (and thus what we see) is shocking. Not that we've not heard about journalists being murdered every week in various parts of the world (Philippines, Russia, etc) - but it's the manner in which they were offed, and how director Robert Connolly shot the sequence.
The editing jumps around rather a lot, though not without rhythm and sense - we flit between a reconstruction of what the Balibo Five were doing and to Roger East's investigations into the jungle and villages. This is accompanied by very poignant music that speaks of reminiscing the past. An example is the journalists' intro montage – East opens a file on a journalist and we cut to the journalist's domestic life before leaving for Timor-Leste.
A good line - Horta demands of East, "What about my country?"; East replies, "It's your problem." And that just about sums up the attitude of the rest of the world at the time - and of us even today.
To be honest I lost interest a bit halfway through - the filmmakers sort of stretched the plot out a little too much, which didn't get interesting again until the last two climactic sequences.
As for the journalists, there were moments when I watched the film where I thought the journalists were far too unsympathetic – they seem to barge into situations without rationale, without an iota of consideration, and with such naïve eagerness. They just wanted to go, go, go. I was actually thinking "serves them right" – at least until the third act of the film arrives. The truth is, if they had survived, very likely they would have been called heroes for bringing the truth of what they saw out into the world – and then the world would promptly forget the incident.
Did I Like It? Above average, but doubt I'll want to watch it again.
Did I Fall Asleep? Don't think so.
During the Q&A, I asked about why the Australian government decided to cover up this incident. (It was only 3 weeks ago prior to this screening, i.e. September 2009, that the Australian government launched war crimes investigations against Indonesia. Thanks to this film.) Connolly answered that it was in the interest of Australia to do so - which I didn't quite understood until I realised what he meant was that the Australian government of the day was in on this. And so was the UN. US government officials left Jakarta on the day before the invasion as a way of turning a blind eye towards what was about to happen.
Essentially, the journalists were killed on October 16. But the invasion was not until December 7. Connolly stated that these events happened during the same year that the Vietnam war ended, where 10 journalists in total lost their lives. But none of those journalists were killed because of their profession. This sets the Balibo Five out to be a different case altogether.
What does it mean that Australia was in on this? Apparently the government struck a deal with the Indonesian government to allow the invasion to take place if they could divide up the oil-rich sea territories. Then there are geostrategic reasons, such as the worry that what was then known as Portuguese Timor would turn Communist, and also because the half-island is buried within the Indonesian archipelago anyway. As such, when the Balibo Five were known to be investigating, the Australian government gave their names to the Indonesian militia - so that they could be hunted down.
The events in this film were as distant to us as WWII were to the people at the time, and with all the cover-up going on over the last few decades, you can imagine how unlikely it was for this story to emerge from oblivion. While the families of the Balibo Five have been fighting for justice (which soon evolved into support for the independence of Timor-Leste, which finally happened 10 years ago), it might well be this film that pushes this incident and the sordid history surrounding this half-island nation into international consciousness. Connolly was particularly proud of the fact that the film was screened at the Australian parliament earlier this year, attended by one of the Timorese cast members in order to highlight the historical plight of these people.