Without turning a blind eye

Aussie director coming here for festival.

Balibo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Balibo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘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 Connolly.
“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 July.
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 approximately 200,000 lives during this 24- year period, were largely ignored at the time, by both Australia and the rest of the world. In fact, Connolly insists, Australia used the Indonesian conquest of the tiny nation (its current population is just about one million) for economic benefit.
“The foreign ministers of Australia and Indonesia flew over the gas fields of East Timor and had French champagne to celebrate dividing them up,” Connolly says.
The focus of the film is the disappearance of five Australian journalists who went to East Timor 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 East 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 the television series Without a Trace but who has also appeared in many acclaimed films, in both Australia and the US, including Lantana and Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam.
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 one of those ‘white man saves the Third World’ stories.” So he brought in other characters as well, including Juliana (Bea Viegas), a woman in contemporary East Timor who met East when she was a child, and who witnessed a key incident involving the Australian.
But the Timorese point of view is most fully expressed by a fictionalized version of Jose Ramos-Horta, played by Oscar Isaac. Horta, currently the president of East Timor and a former prime minister, was 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 26-year-old,” says Connolly. “I wanted to try to show him as a young man.”
Although Australians are more familiar with the story of the violence against East Timor than foreigners, they still aren’t aware of many details. Connolly says his film, which has already been released in Australia and which will be shown commercially here after the festival, struck a chord with many viewers. “I’ve had people weeping in my arms after screenings, saying, ‘Why didn’t we do anything?’” But Connolly, who is visiting Israel for the first time and had just toured the holocaust museum at Yad Vashem the day before, is aware that East Timor is just one of many situations where “the world turned a blind eye.” At Yad Vashem, he noticed a quote posted from the Australian government after World War II, saying that official government policy was to refuse entry to Jewish refugees.
This leads to a wide-ranging discussion of current and former tragedies and humanrights abuses, as well as the movement to boycott Israel.
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 chance to question people and to see for myself? I was fascinated to come here.”
Indeed, Connolly is so interested in every aspect of Israeli life and politics that he asks as many questions as his interviewer.
THIS IS Connolly’s third feature film. His first, The Bank, was about corporate intrigue, and his second, Three Dollars, tells the story of a man pushed to the brink, emotionally and financially. He speaks enthusiastically about all three of his movies, although he notes that Three Dollars didn’t do as well as he had 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.
“There aren’t children’s films in Australia, although there is a lot of kids’ TV,” he says.
When it comes to his next film, he’s looking to lighten up. “With Balibo, 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 proud of the film, but I’d like to do something a little different.”
More specifically, he is hoping to make a new version of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, the story of Italian immigrants to the US, with LaPaglia again starring.
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 make the most of his brief visit, and is looking forward to seeing Nazareth.