Friday, August 21, 2009

The Australian movie Balibo: a story partly told

I have yet to see the Australian film Balibo about the death of five Australian journalists in East Timor in 1975, but there is a growing debate about the failure of the film to tell the full story of their deaths, particularly to overlook the complicity of the Australian government and other western governments in their deaths and the invasion of East Timor.

The debate highlights historical events leading up to the death of the journalists and the Indonesian invasion, but also because it raises important questions about the role of mainstream cinema in telling stories about social and political issues.

In his latest column for the New Statesman, Australian investigative journalist and film maker John Pilger recalls his undercover reporting from East Timor and reveals that the movie perpetuates the cover-up of the role played by western governments in the genocidal invasion of East Timor by Indonesia and the Australian government's part in the murder of its own journalists.

Debate about the the film's failure to tell the whole story unfolds in the Sydney Morning Herald where Paul Cleary and the film's Director Robert Connolly have contributed pieces Cleary has another piece in Eureka St

Cleary argues that
"None of the Australians and Americans who had a hand in the events that led to these murders – and the deaths of an estimated 183,000 Timorese – are portrayed in the film and ..... the film's official website demands that the Indonesian officers associated with the murders be tried for war crimes but does not call for complicit Westerners to face justice"
Cleary, like Pilger, argues that the film largely ignores that the Australian government, including Richard Woollcroft, the Australian Ambassador in Indonesia, senior officials in the Jakarta embassy and PM Gough Whitlam were implicated and complicit in the Indonesian invasion of Timor and death of the Australian journalists

Connolly responds to Cleary's claims pointing out that in speeches and comments at showings of the film he has highlighted the complicity of western leaders including the Australian government.

"While Cleary would rather I stitched all the political elements together for the audience, I would prefer to assume that the audience is intelligent enough to join the dots themselves. The lowest common denominator approach to cinema has served audiences poorly, as has a genre of films that bludgeons an audience over the head with the filmmaker's point of view.

In contrast with this, absorbing feature films such as The Killing Fields, Salvador and Hotel Rwanda found a compelling way to explore history and prompt a wider analysis without lecturing the audience, and were a huge influence on our approach to Balibo. The political thriller demands that characters lead the audience through the drama, rather than merely attempting to articulate a didactic polemic as Cleary would prefer"

This is an important debate and whilst Connolly is one of the few Australian film makers willing to make films that engage contemporary social and political issues his view seems to be that filmmakers should somehow avoid presenting a particular political perspective lest the audience is as he puts it "bludgeoned over the head" by the filmmakers view.

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