Balibo is writer/director Robert Connolly’s tight-as-a-snare-drum political sizzler that recreates events surrounding the murder of five Australian journalists in East Timor in 1975. Taut, gripping and intensely acted (read my review here) the film, which opened last month’s Melbourne International Film Festival, is a knocks-ya-socks-off wartime exposé rich with realism and technical savvy. Connolly and I sat down for a chat shortly before Babilo’s theatrical release on August 13.
The other two films you’ve directed, Three Dollars and The Bank, were received generally positively but the reaction to Balibo has been something else entirely. It’s a provocative and already very highly acclaimed film and one destined to get tongues wagging. I think it’s definitely your best work. Are you happy with that label? Do you believe it’s your best film too?
I do, yeah, but it’s hard to judge your own work. Someone who made a lot of films once said to me you’ve got to treat your films like children. Some of them grow up to be very successful and some of them don’t but you’ve got to treat them all equally. You have a responsibility even to the films that don’t work. Personally I’m so proud of this film and it’s hard as a filmmaker to say that because everyone in Australia is modest about their own work. But I’m just proud of the way we’ve realised an ambition to tell this story in the way we’ve told it. I don’t deny that people have issues with aspects of the film – that’s part of the discourse that happens around cinema. But we went there. We went to Balibo and filmed in Balibo and for me it was profoundly moving…To take the actors there and to know that 34 years before in that very place these guys had filmed footage they were killed for that we were recreating. At some point it transcended being about just the filmmaking and became about the significance of telling that story.
The film will no doubt impact the way Australians view what happened in Balibo in 1975. I’m assuming one of your aims must have been to use the film to help the Balibo Five tragedy find a place in the national consciousness.
The Breaker Morant story is embedded in Australia’s national story because of that film. The Gallipoli story – we celebrate Gallipoli but that is embedded in our national history because of that film. They’re both works of fiction interpreting history. They’re not documentaries and Balibo is in that lineage. As a filmmaker you feel that responsibility. If Balibo were to be a successful film it always had to bed down the events in the same way we see the final scene of Breaker in bedding down what happened in the Boer war. That responsibility weighed heavily on me but it also helped us all raise the bar.
José Ramos-Horta spoke at the film’s premiere last month at the Melbourne International Film Festival. What sort of things did he talk about?
He got up and made this great off the cuff speech. It was such a compassionate kind of view questioning how it is that human beings can commit such atrocities against each other. He put the film in the context of post World War II atrocities and the scale of them and viewed the tragedy of East Timor as a drop in the ocean in the scale of terrible things that have happened. He said the film had prompted in him a sense of that, which was my ambition. It was a very moving speech and after that we got the families of the Balibo Five up on stage.
Oscar Isaac gives a flattering and very charismatic performance as Horta. Does Horta more or less agree with the film’s version of events?
Yeah he does. He said a few things about the murder of the five men and that he believes it was much more brutal than what we depict. He says it’s good we depicted it in such a sober way, but the audience haven’t really thought that at all. It’s so full on. I think that really shows the extent to which someone who has seen such great tragedy can view those events and think it’s a sober view of them, whereas people in Australia can view them and almost can’t watch the sequence!
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That particular scene feels very violent but really the use of violence in Balibo is quite sparing, isn’t it? The film doesn’t glorify violence nor turn a blind eye to it.
I wanted it to be brutal, honest and in your face. There’s no slow mo, there’s no music. It happens in real time, whereas in cinema we’re used to enhancing moments through little flourishes of technique.
So no Matrix style dodging the bullets shots, right?
(Laughing) That’s right.
You brought up comparisons to Gallipoli and Breaker Morant. Were they inspirations for making Balibo?
Those films were very significant for me when I was younger. It’s of great interest to me how works of fiction dealing with history become so significant. Like The Killing Fields. I think of the Khmer Rouge and the tragedy of what happened in Cambodia. That film is the document of that, which immediately emotionally invokes in me that tragedy. Although I’ve seen documentaries and read about it it’s that film, which again is a work of fiction. Even in recent times. The Last King of Scotland was complete fiction – that character never existed but you think you now understand about (Ugandan President) Idi Amin and Uganda. You have a sense of what was befalling that country. There’s also Hotel Rwanda, which was definitely more successful than The Last King of Scotland in some ways.
So, ironic though it may sound, sometimes it takes fiction to really bring out the truth?
I’ve thought a lot about this and I think it’s something about how fiction can interpret some aspect of the human condition. Documentary is governed by a more factual representation but fiction allows you to hypothesise a human dimension to characters who are dealing with moments of great significance, like a historic figure like Ramos Horta in Balibo. I don’t know what the actual conversations were between him and Roger East. Horta said something interesting to me, which I had read before. I think Carl Jung said it in something he’d written. He said it’s not important when interpreting history in works of fiction whether something actually happened; it’s more important to know whether it could have happened. Horta said a similar thing to me about that fight in the pool scene. He said look I fought with Roger East a lot and that fight didn’t happen in the way you’ve shown it but it could have. I could have said those things and I’m happy with it. He said he could have had that fight with a dozen different journalists.
To write the screenplay you collaborated with your co-writer David Williamson. When most people see the words ‘co-written’ I think they picture two guys leaning over the same keyboard. What was the process actually like?
He wrote the early draft and I wrote the later draft. At a certain point I took over writing the script and that’s when it changed quite profoundly. I’d been up to Timor and that was when the film started becoming more about the East Timorese part of the story. For me I couldn’t make a five white men saving the third world film. I just couldn’t. I don’t believe it. I don’t agree with that type of cinema. This country lost 200,000 people. They found independence because of charismatic figures like Horta and because of amazing spirit of the people to seek independence. The more I went to Timor the more the story of that country got under my skin.
I mentioned in my review that the presence of the Balibo five remains very high impact throughout. You get these short bursts of them, with their part in the film anchored by the Roger East and Ramos Horta story, which is really where the dialogue and characterisations come in. But for the Balibo Five it seemed like you and David Williamson were very careful not to have the characters for example talking about their girlfriends or their lives back home.
I love that stuff you wrote about it because I think you really got on to our whole approach. There is one type of film which is first act, we meet the guys in Melbourne and meet their girlfriends and mothers and blah blah blah. That for me is like a telemovie structure. There is an old fashioned assumption that in order to make you feel for the characters you need that kind of typical background information. If you haven’t met their mums and their wives you’re not going to feel anything for them. I took the exact opposite approach, which is observing truthful performances that weren’t driven by the typically dramatic instruction of Hollywood cinema. Whereas the Roger East and Horta story is much more conventional, and you picked this up in your writing. The Balibo Five, we just observe them… I think the cinematographer described it as observing drama with the camera rather than constructing drama with the camera. That is why sometimes I’d call action and I didn’t know what was gonna happen and the actors didn’t either. I know it walks this fine line because there are some people who like conventional dramatic interactions (but) this shorthand way of doing it I think is probably more truthful.
What was your impression of East Timor when you first arrived?
We hit the ground there. Ninety percent of the buildings in East Timor were destroyed in ’99 by the Indonesians retreating. Ninety percent! I mean they guaranteed that it would be generations before the country got back up off its knees.
Aesthetically the footage of the Balibo Five takes on a different look, tone and grade. It’s fuzzier and a lot more metallic and retro looking. .
We got old lenses from the 70s that the journalists had used and I shot all their footage on them. We shot it on grainy film, whereas the Roger East story is filmed much slicker. Shooting on all these old lenses, well, you can do all the digitally now but there was something about taking these lenses to Balibo and seeing the stories through these lenses.
Were their scenes you edited out of the film that you were particularly proud of? Scenes that might be included in the DVD extras?
Primarily there’s more of the story of Horta. There’s three key scenes. Actually there is a really strong scene – unfortunately in the film the rhythm didn’t work – where Horta confronts Roger East with the story of how the Timorese supported the Australian army in World War II and how 40,000 Timorese died protecting the Australian soldiers there. And Australia’s betrayal of the Timorese in ‘75. He says the Japanese offered us money to betray the Australians and we didn’t and we died for it. It’s a great scene. I couldn’t get it in but on the DVD I think it’ll be a good scene to have. It broke my heart to cut it out!
As Roger East, Anthony LaPaglia contributes easily one of his most rousing performances. Did you have him in mind from the start?
Yeah. He brought the book to me after we did The Bank. He prompted the whole thing. Early on he was just interested in the story getting told and the early drafts were really only about the Balibo Five. Anthony is an EP (executive producer) of the film and I think Roger East first appeared as a little character he would have played. But then Roger East began to fascinate me as a character and in particular his friendship with Horta.
I assume you keep your finger on the pulse of the Australian film industry. It’s been a bonanza year so far. What do you think about the quality of local cinema in 2009?
I think it’s really great. I think Samson & Delilah is an amazing film and a lot of films are still to come. There is diversity, which is what I like. I remember in the year I made The Bank there was Moulin Rouge, a big studio film. There was Lantana, a huge commercial art house break out. The Man Who Sued God, a comedy. David Caesar made a personal little intimate movie, Mullet, which made over a million bucks. So you look at that year and the diversity is really healthy. This year we’ve had a big film like Australia, a little film like Samson & Delilah. Mary and Max – an animation. My Year Without Sex – a comedy. Balibo – a political thriller. You’ve got Mao’s Last Dancer still to come. There’s heaps more. You’ve got Cedar Boys, which I can’t wait to see. I think diversity across the year is the trick. Sometimes Australian cinema gets bogged down. You get a run of a particular type of film – 6 or 7 comedies in a row or 6 or 7 tough social realist dramas. The films themselves aren’t wrong to have been made but they just fall unfortunately outside the context of a diverse cinema.
In terms of future plans, have you got any other projects on the boil or is it too early for writing or directing?
It is. This film has been all consuming and I unfortunately don’t have anything ready to go. You try and overlap projects (but) I have not been able to. I haven’t had a moment to contemplate another project. It’s almost like I’d feel I was being unfaithful to this project. You become obsessed. To start thinking about something else feels like ‘why am I spending time on this other idea?’ Really I have to focus myself in a blinkered way on Balibo. That’s what’s been going on. But I will find myself in a period of time where I will probably need to start reasonably quickly once this is released.
Feeling you must be faithful to one film – that must be a powerful sensation?
It’s like anything else clouds your judgement on the task at hand. It’s hard, though, because I need to have another film. I need to have another film because now I will go on the festival circuit and release it and filmmakers talk about this hole they fall in for a year after a film comes out. They are marketing, living the dream, going off to remote places and film festivals but not necessarily keeping their next project moving ahead.
Balibo was an intense experience. All your films have been pretty intense. So when’s your rom com coming out?
I don’t know mate. I probably should do something light hearted.