The New York edition of the cross-Atlantic Human Rights Watch Film Festival – an event that’s by definition heavy on non-fiction filmmaking – often features a fundraising benefit night of a narrative film, with guests and high-priced tickets, that’s about as close as this well-meaning gathering gets to festival glitz. Last year’s selection, Costa-Gavras’ Eden is West, was an intriguing if underdeveloped story about modern migration. This year’s film, Robert Connolly’s The Balibo Conspiracy (aka Balibo), is a similarly problematic but worthwhile picture about a deadly serious and little-discussed subject.
Anthony LaPaglia stars in this based-on-true-events story about once-idealistic, now tired-out Australian newspaperman Roger East, who travels to East Timor in 1975 to investigate what happened to five younger Aussie television journalists who recently went missing. This happens right on the cusp of climactic events: the small nation of East Timor, having just declared independence after four centuries of Portuguese rule, is about to be invaded by the armies of neighboring Indonesia. East is suborned by Timorese official Jose Ramos-Horta (played with improbable charm by Oscar Isaac, who impressed as the campy, scheming Prince John in Robin Hood) to travel to the struggling rebel state and report on what’s happening. Once there, a reluctant East is sidetracked by the mystery of the five journalists who came before him, often ignoring the plight of the soon-to-be invaded Timorese right in front of him.
Connolly frequently cuts back from East’s quest to the gamboling adventures of the missing five, who blaze forward into the combat zone (where Indonesian troops have already crossed the border in disguise) with little realization of what awaits them. Like East, they seem to believe that their white faces and Australian passports afford special status in the massacre to come.
Unfortunately for a story that has received so little attention in the west – after Indonesia invaded, with tacit Australian and American support, hundreds of thousands of Timorese were massacred in the following two decades – Connolly’s film functions as only the most standard sort of melodrama. (Though it still rankled enough feathers in Jakarta for it to be banned in Indonesia.) Smartly acted and beautifully shot on location, The Balibo Conspiracy focuses too much on East’s moral dilemma when it could have much more vividly explicated the plight of the Timorese and the reasons behind the invasion that looms so darkly over their lives.