Robert Connolly is an AFI winning filmmaker, having produced modern Australian classic The Boys and Romulus My Father, and directed The Bank and Three Dollars. His latest film is the political thriller BALIBO, which re-enacts the last days of six Australian journalists killed during Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor. The following is a conversation we had about BALIBO. Enjoy!
Matthew Pejkovic: When did you first hear of the Balibo Five?
Robert Connolly: I heard about them from Tony Maniaty, who was on the literature board when I was at the Film and Television school here in Sydney. He wrote a short film which began my career called Mr. Ikegami’s Flight. I didn’t know anything about (Balibo) as a young man of 20 years old, when one day over dinner he told me the story of what happened to him as a young ABC journalist. Many years later Anthony La Paglia brought me Jill Jolfe’s book Cover Up, and asked “Do you think there is a film in this?” It was interesting in that I didn’t find out about (the Balibo Five) until I was 26. Did you know about it?
MP: Funny you ask, because I did not know about it until I saw your film. Is that a common admission?
RC: It is, and I am kind of excited by that. Because it is a political thriller, and I am finding a younger demographic that are like “Shit! What happened?”, and finding the film quite surprising. So you didn’t know, even though they got killed?
MP: I didn’t know a thing about it.
RC: Was it an absolute shock?
MP: The first thing I saw was the trailer, and I thought it was very interesting. And then when I found out it was a true story it definitely was a shock, because...well, that comes to my next question: how does that happen?
RC: Yeah, well it is a real pity that the story is not well known, and this is partly what the film can do. It can rectify that. When I was a kid I saw Gallipoli. Breaker Morant. The Year of Living Dangerously. The Killing Fields is a classic for me about Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. So I think cinema has an amazing ability to rectify that, and maybe the film comes out in a need for that to be done. And I find your generation really interesting, in that you’re more politically cynical, environmentally aware...there is a whole new generation of people, so for them this film...these guys were your age and younger. So I hope it speaks to your generation about these events.
MP: Considering BALIBO will be the first for many to learn about this story, did you feel a heavy burden of responsibility while making it?
RC: I felt an incredible responsibility to the families of the Balibo Five, and to the Timorese people in trying to get this film right. I also thought that there would probably be only one film about it, so...I had to get it right.
MP: Since it is a thriller on top of being a true story, what were your cinematic influences? You mentioned Killing Fields. I felt a bit of Salvador...
RC: Yeah, absolutely. Killing Fields; Salvador...I was interested in recent films like Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland...some of Michael Winterbottom’s films...
MP: A Mighty Heart...
RC:...yeah, and even films like The Constant Gardener. So I was looking at cinema that was trying to deal with this stuff...not taking things from all of them, but interestingly probably Killing Fields and Salvador were two key influences.
MP: You shot in East Timor. How was that experience?
RC: Amazing! It was the greatest experience of my film making career. It is an incredible country. It was the most challenging thing I have ever done. Every morning when I woke up I had no idea how we would achieve what we had to achieve. Very small crew... but to be in Balibo, and be in a 400 year old Portuguese fort above Balibo, filming scenes that involve the recreation of these moments...the footage that these guys were murdered for filming...I had to pinch myself. It was an amazing opportunity that my life took me to this place to make this film.
MP: East Timorese citizens were used as extras in the film. Did any share memories from the 1975 invasion?
RC: Yeah. The big massacre on the wharf...there were people on that day who were there in ’75 on the wharf. One woman came up to me and said, “Now people will know what happened to us”. It was very moving, the whole experience. You cannot find anyone in East Timor that has not lost a loved one.
MP: BALIBO was budgeted at $4.5 million. But it felt like watching a $20 million film.
RC: Well, what I didn’t do was cut the on-screen stuff. I cut all of the other rubbish that makes film budgets so high. But I didn’t want people to watch BALIBO and think it is a little film. I want choppers and explosions... I also wanted people to see East Timor for the first time on film, since it was the first feature ever made there. So in order to do that I had to cut back on the trappings. I sent an email to all of the actors’ agents, since so many young guys wanted to play the Balibo Five. And it said: “Just to let you know, don’t let any actors audition who haven’t read (Cover Up); travel to East Timor is currently a category 4 (warning); you are sleeping on the floor; when you are not acting you will be helping the crew do other things...” (laughs) And the actors I got –subsequently- were bloody amazing in helping the filmmaking. On big set days actors who weren’t acting would come down and be assistant directors. That’s pretty good!
MP: As the films extras told you their stories, did that find its way into the script?
RC: Yeah. No doubt. It just gives you more of a tough, visceral, authentic quality.
MP: With the film’s release not far away, is there some expectation that the current government will be prodded into releasing some sort of statement...
RC: Well, I have a Parliament House screening coming up, so I will be showing BALIBO to the government and see what they think. I hope that they can think that this is something that happened years ago, that they can see that is an historic event, that the truth should be told, and that they don’t take a pragmatic view of it.
MP: Had the boys come home with footage in tow...
RC: Could it have changed the show? I think that it possibly could of. October 16th they were killed. Indonesia did not invade until December the 7th. If they got that footage out, I think it would have shown the world that Indonesia was attacking. I think it would have had a huge impact. It is one of the great tragedies that they were killed trying to get footage out that would have....made a difference.
BALIBO will be released nationwide on the 13th of August through Footprint Films.