Last night, I went to the opening of the film festival at the Arts Centre. A huge event, the like of which I haven’t been to in ages. A great many speeches, seen from a great distance – Geoffrey Rush, John Brumby - and the premiere screening of Robert Connolly’s Balibo.
The sound unfortunately was terrible, doubly so for me with my blasted out ears, but the film about the five Australian journalists killed during the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor (or Timor Leste as it now seems to be called) was a pretty reasonable effort.
It told two stories: that of the Five and the events leading to their deaths, and that of an older journalist named Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia), who, with the help of a young, freedom-fighting Jose Ramos Horta, travels to Balibo to ascertain their fates. East’s story comes across in clear focus - it’s the spine of the film - but the Five’s experiences felt strangely spectral. Again, this may be due to my blasted senses but these sections seemed to be coloured differently, as if shot on aged stock, or long ago, with higher contrast and saturation; their time felt far more remote than the experiences of East just three weeks later.
The characters of the Five never fully congealed for me, they always remained a group rather than individuals. They were like ghosts, reprinted newspaper photos brought to life and doomed to die. Their actual deaths were rendered with horrific simplicity and inevitability – there was no mercy for these living dead, and only a sharp horrifying glimpse, through the ashes of their burnt bodies, of the horror of their last moments.
Innocent young Australians utterly at sea in a vicious alien world they did not understand, which did not recognise their ideals, and to which they expected to be immune - simply because they were Australians.
Naturally, the iconic painting of the word Australia on the side of the Balibo house was included. The word became a protective talisman, and, in the end, was just as ineffective as any rabbit’s foot or monkey’s claw. Even East shared this mindset to a degree. His last words, immediately before he was machine-gunned, delivered with a final surprised bewilderment, were ‘But I’m Australian!”
Afterwards, more speeches, including fine words from Ramos Horta who stood with a uniformed bodyguard behind and to his right. The families of the dead journalists were invited on stage, the actors too. Oddly, there was no mention of Xanana Gusmao at any point in the proceedings.
A massive party afterwards, packing every level of the Arts Centre. I got chatting and almost missed the last train to Mount Waverley. Here are a few old cronies I haven’t seen in decades …