It’s early morning as Juliana (Bea Viegas) wakes. The sun is bright as she and her four young children board a truck, headed into Dili, capital of East Timor. The ride is long and bumpy, and intercut into the scene of her arrival at a small, dark office, where she makes a statement for the Timor-Leste Commission For Truth and Reconciliation. Her journey to the city and her journey into her own past, specifically what she witnessed when Indonesia invaded East Timor 1975.
Just nine years old at the time, Juliana now sits quietly while she recalls atrocities she saw that day. Here The Balibo Conspiracy cuts back to her memory (in which she’s played by Anamaria Barreto) of another bumpy ride. Back then, her father had sent her away from home in hopes of protecting her from the violence to come. As the camera shows her young, frightened face, in close-up through a chain link fence, she tells her questioner that she saw a man she knew, Australian journalist Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia). “My father said he had a troubled soul,” she says, troubled by “what he had seen.”
And so The Balibo Conspiracy—which opens this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York on 10 June—introduces its deep interest in seeing. While seeing can be traumatic for individuals like Juliana and Roger East, the film insists on the crucial role of witnessing in the construction of history. For as Juliana’s describes this single moment of seeing Roger dragged through the street by men with guns, she opens up a series of stories about seeing, as the film reveals what Roger saw in his pursuit of five Australian reporters who went missing in East Timor just before the invasion (neither Australia nor the U.S. objected to the invasion; Henry Kissinger notoriously supported a “policy of silence”). As the film’s nesting-dolls structure reveals, these young men also saw horrific events, capturing some with their cameras and reporting others from an increasingly hectic country.
The film is based on a set of true stories long repressed: the Commission hearings were convened 30 years after the invasion, and an inquest into the death of one reporter, Brian Peters (Thomas Wright), was begun in 2007. While the film doesn’t sort out these many layers of seeing and remembering, it does present two straightforward narratives: Roger searches for the reporters—Greg Shackleton (Damon Gameau), Tony Stewart (Mark Leonard Winter), Gary Cunningham (Gyton Grantley), and Malcolm Rennie (Nathan Phillips)—as their own already past experience runs on a parallel track: both stories take the Australians to Balibo, a location here fraught with mystery. The group is told they will be able to film the start of the invasion here (an ambition that leads them into predictably dire straits), and later, Roger is told he will be able to find what happened to the reporters.
As the film has it, Roger is living in Darwin, Australia, writing his “memoirs,” drinking hard and feeling depressed and, as he says repeatedly, old. His clichéd situation occasions a visit from José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac), who invites him to head up East Timor’s nascent news bureau. When Roger resists, José comes up with assorted reasons for his interest—ethical, political, and professional—finally convincing him with the story of the missing reporters. Now, Roger has a reason to care, his own countrymen lost and abandoned by the Australian government (which is doing “bug-all,” as Roger puts it). Introduced by Juliana’s story, these parallel stories of white men in a scary place now form the film’s focus.
Certainly, this strategy is familiar in western movies based on true histories (see: Salvador, Under Fire, The Year of Living Dangerously). The Balibo Conspiracy goes so far as to point out the formula during one of José and Roger’s several arguments. Following their discovery of massacred Timorese in a village en route to Balibo, Roger insists that he must go on to solve the mystery of the missing Australians. José erupts, furious that his companion appears less moved by the dead villagers than he is concerned for his own countrymen. “If I find out what happened to those five white Australian journalists,” Roger explains, “It’s gonna be on the front page and justice will be served to you and your fucking country.” No surprise, José is dumbfounded: “Is that a fucking joke? You’re going to stand there and say the word ‘justice’ to me?”
Both men are right, of course. East Timor has been absolutely abandoned by Australia (which has a longstanding and complex set of relationships with both East Timor and Indonesia). And, as Roger points out, western news agencies (and entertainment industries) act according to belief that white protagonists provide the most effective points of appeal for “broad” audiences. As untrue as this truism may be, The Balibo Conspiracy here simultaneously uses and condemns it. This preemptive strategy would seem to have it both ways, drawing viewers with DePaglia’s participation (and his performance is superb) while also underscoring what’s wrong with that effort to draw viewers. The question is, if you’re drawn, and affected, by what you see, where is your responsibility in this process?
The strategy might thus be described as both cynical and effective. Surely this is a story—or set of stories—that warrant exposure, again and again. The film does return to Juliana’s viewpoint at last, after showing all sorts of events and relationships that have nothing to do with her. It also returns to José, whom Roger leaves behind for some time, to note that he goes on to live in exile and work for his country’s liberation for 24 years, and also to win the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. While it may go without saying that José‘s story also seems ripe for a movie treatment, the fact that it becomes something of a footnote here reiterates The Balibo Conspiracy‘s point—that too many stories remain unseen and untold, subjected to ongoing policies of silence.