Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Last month I went to see the movie Balibo with my sister-in-law. It was pretty powerful stuff and we came away wanting to know more. I ordered some books from the local library and Tony Maniaty’s Shooting Balibo – Blood and Memory in East Timor turned up last week.

The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Tony in his Acknowledgements at the back of the book does state that he has tried to “recapture, through observation, archives and recalled moments, what happened in a small and very troubled place in 1975, and the experiences of returning there in 2008 with the Balibo film production…..It is by no means an authoritative history: the works of Jill Jolliffe and James Dunn, who were also in Dili in 1975, and also of Hamish McDonald and Desmond Ball, are well recommended in that regard.”

So who was/is Tony Maniaty? Well, if you’ve seen the movie, he was the journalist who survived – the one that got away! Tony Maniaty was the ABC’s news journalist covering the conflict in East Timor in 1975. Originally from Brisbane, now my home town, he joined the ABC as a cadet journalist in 1967 “fresh out of high school”. I joined ABC Brisbane in 1982 (in much lowlier circumstance I might add) so was interested to hear what it was like working at the ABC before my time. Tony had long gone by the time I arrived. Since 1975 he has been Diplomatic Correspondent for Radio Australia, and in 1991-92 was European Correspondent for SBS's Dateline. Our paths almost crossed again when in 1993, Tony attended the Australian Film, Radio and Television School. Only I was still in Brisbane working as the Professional Development Manager and he was a student in Sydney. It was at the School that he met Robert Connolly who I met not long after when he was Associate Producer on All Men are Liars in Far North Queensland. I was supervising some internships for the Pacific Film and Television Commission. Robert then went on to produce The Boys, The Monkey’s Mask, and Romulus, My Father. He also directed The Bank, Three Dollars and now Balibo.

So, there were a few “characters” in the book already known to me – the ABC and some members of the film crew. Tony captures beautifully what it’s like to work in both areas. His book really is a marvellous attempt to capture the at times disorienting experience of recalling memories, re-telling stories and the process of filmmaking – particularly the new and very popular area of storytelling – the area of docu-drama – what is real? What is fiction? What really matters in storytelling? What story are we trying to tell?

I was a bit disappointed that there were no photos included (apart from the front cover) but Tony’s writing style is so descriptive that that begins to matter less and less the further into the book you delve. What impressed me over and over again was his ability to capture memories of growing up – reminding me of things I had forgotten that I had done too in my youth e.g. “Back then, in the halcyon 1950s, I dreamed of travel to exotic lands, not least in Africa. Unlike most boys, I penned letters to foreign embassies in Canberra asking for tourist brochures to expedite my journeys. ….bundles of multi-hued brochures tumbled into my dull life, promoting destinations, attractions and luxury hotels from Bermuda to Tanganyika…..” I grew up in the 60s but we still did that then too!!

Cinema audiences walk away from the movie with many questions no doubt and Tony attempts to answer some of these in the book. Why did the Balibo 5 ignore his advice and head towards almost certain death? Why did the Australian government do nothing? Who was Greg Shackleton and what motivated him? Who is Jose Ramos Horta?

I was 14 at the time of the Indonesian invasion and confess to very little consciousness of it or the Balibo 5. As Tony states several times in the book, the Constitutional Crisis tended to overshadow everything. My sister-in-law and I marvelled at the Production Design in the film – the seventies was perfectly captured. Those short shorts and sideburns – hubba hubba!!. For me particularly the excitement of being part of a film crew was also captured. But of course Tony is quite right when he says that the great casting is ultimately what really makes the film “authentic”.

Heading back to Balibo last year to witness the filming gave Maniaty an unreal sense of reality versus unreality.

“It’s growing harder by the hour not to see these actors as the living embodiment of the Balibo Five, and the real Balibo Five as historical figures we’ve constructed from photos, their reporting and filming, and memories laced together by family and friends. Thrust together in this Toyota, laughing and playing up, they are as they might have been in 1975; five for the road, searching for adventure and great stories. The actors are young and I’m not, but just for a moment I can feel what it was like to be in my mid-twenties…..I am bouncing along in the back of a ute with mates of the same age, I’m acting in a movie called Life; there’s no reason to turn back. I’m in the universal moment.

He witnesses another unreal moment when…

“I step into the DVD shop. It is, literally, a pirate’s cave. Every disc here has been copied from a master somewhere in deepest Asia, wrapped in cellophane and priced to the local market, a couple of dollars apiece. ……I have escaped the Balibo team; I’ve stepped out of the film world and into the real word of Dili, only to find the real world consists of an emerging Timorese middle-class consuming thousands of imported movies…..”

Tony wrestles with his role as storyteller. As a journalist, particularly for the ABC, he is meant to report what he finds impartially. Who is telling him the truth? Who can he trust? It is part of the challenge he faces when reflecting on his brief conversation with Greg Shackleton and his team. The competitive nature of television journalism could mean that his heartfelt advice to them not to head to Balibo could have been interpreted by macho males as a gauntlet.

It is ironic that on his return to Darwin in 1975 his boss advises him to lay low for a couple of weeks “I’d been back for a couple of hours and to one side I was still ’the Communist journalist’ targeted for elimination on Indonesian radio and to the other ‘the traitor undermining the revolution.’

Tony is ultimately reflecting on what it means to be a storyteller in today’s world – fact or fiction. What stories we choose to tell and the effort both mentally and physically that it takes – sometimes the toll both personally and professionally. Jose Ramos Horta for one had to leg it all over the world to tell his story, finally to the UN and anyone else who would listen. He and his family are still paying the price.

Maniaty reflects on the huge leaps forward in technology now for storytellers – at a touch of a mobile phone, in most areas, we can ring colleagues, family and friends and ask for advice, information or reassure them we are okay. We can google things we are not sure of. The producers sit on set and look at rushes on their laptops – inconceivable back in 75. The gear we use as filmmakers is much more discrete and almost weightless in comparison to the heavy cameras and sound recording gear that used to be lugged around. I was impressed by the account of the actors preparing for their roles – looking at I-pods with uploaded actual footage of the news reports from 75 to ensure their performances were authentic.

As audiences, we choose the stories we want to hear. I’m glad I chose this story.

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