‘East Timor is just an hour by plane from Darwen [Australia], and there were
killing fields on our doorstep from 1975 to 1999,” says Robert
“That period is a dark spot in Australian history.” Connolly is
the director of Balibo, the opening feature in the seventh AICE Australia Israel
Film Festival, which kicked off on Sunday at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and
opens tonight (Thursday) at the Nazareth Cinematheque. The festival then moves
on to cinematheques in Tel Aviv and Haifa, where it runs through
But through his film – a fact-based, quasi-documentary and very
suspenseful drama – Connolly tries to shed some light on this time. The
massacres of Timorese citizens by Indonesian forces, which claimed
200,000 lives during this 24- year period, were largely ignored at the
both Australia and the rest of the world. In fact, Connolly insists,
used the Indonesian conquest of the tiny nation (its current population
about one million) for economic benefit.
“The foreign ministers of
Australia and Indonesia flew over the gas fields of East Timor and had
champagne to celebrate dividing them up,” Connolly says.
The focus of the
film is the disappearance of five Australian journalists who went to
in 1975, just after the nation declared its independence from Portuguese
colonial rule, and just as Indonesia was preparing to invade. After the
journalists went missing, veteran Australian reporter Roger East went to
Timor to try to discover what had happened to them.
East is played by
Anthony LaPaglia, an actor who may be best known for his lead role in
television series Without a Trace but who has also appeared in many
films, in both Australia and the US, including Lantana and Spike Lee’s
ALTHOUGH CONNOLLY uses East and his quest to find the missing men as
a “point of entry into the story,” he says, “I didn’t want this to be
those ‘white man saves the Third World’ stories.” So he brought in other
characters as well, including Juliana (Bea Viegas), a woman in
Timor who met East when she was a child, and who witnessed a key
involving the Australian.
But the Timorese point of view is most fully
expressed by a fictionalized version of Jose Ramos-Horta, played by
Horta, currently the president of East Timor and a former prime
also a co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.
“When Horta approached
East and asked him to go to East Timor and cover events, he was a
says Connolly. “I wanted to try to show him as a young man.”
Australians are more familiar with the story of the violence against
than foreigners, they still aren’t aware of many details. Connolly says
film, which has already been released in Australia and which will be
commercially here after the festival, struck a chord with many viewers.
had people weeping in my arms after screenings, saying, ‘Why didn’t we
anything?’” But Connolly, who is visiting Israel for the first time and
toured the holocaust museum at Yad Vashem the day before, is aware that
Timor is just one of many situations where “the world turned a blind
Yad Vashem, he noticed a quote posted from the Australian government
War II, saying that official government policy was to refuse entry to
This leads to a wide-ranging discussion of current and former
tragedies and humanrights abuses, as well as the movement to boycott
Connolly does not see the point of such a step. “I’m a curious
person, as an artist and a filmmaker,” he says, “Why deny myself the
question people and to see for myself? I was fascinated to come
Indeed, Connolly is so interested in every aspect of Israeli life
and politics that he asks as many questions as his interviewer.
Connolly’s third feature film. His first, The Bank
, was about corporate
intrigue, and his second, Three
, tells the story of a man pushed to the
brink, emotionally and financially. He speaks enthusiastically about all
of his movies, although he notes that Three Dollars didn’t do as well as
hoped. “Somebody told me films are like children – they won’t all be as
successful, but you have to love them equally.”
Connolly, who has two
young daughters, would also like to make a film for children.
aren’t children’s films in Australia, although there is a lot of kids’
When it comes to his next film, he’s looking to lighten up. “With
, I felt the weight of
history, I felt responsible towards the real people
who were killed, to tell their stories. It took its toll on me. I’m very
of the film, but I’d like to do something a little different.”
specifically, he is hoping to make a new version of Arthur Miller’s A View from
, the story of Italian immigrants to the US, with
Connolly wouldn’t rule out making a film set in Israel, either.
“There’s co-production money,” he says. But right now, he’s trying to
most of his brief visit, and is looking forward to seeing Nazareth.