Balibo (2009)

Updated: Mar 11

"Five Australians have gone missing, and as usual, the Australian government is doing f--- all." - Roger East

Timor-Leste (East Timor) was first colonized by Portugal in the 16th century, but it was always like a forgotten colony. The Portuguese set up some coffee plantations, and locals mostly depended on agriculture for survival. Calls for independence were relatively limited.

But following a coup in Portugal in 1974, the Portuguese government began a gradual decolonization process in East Timor. Three political parties emerged: UDT, Apodeti, and Fretilin. UDT supported a gradual independence process, Apodeti supported integration with Indonesia, and Fretilin supported independence and socialism. With three parties that have different ideologies, fueled by the outside actors of Indonesia and Australia, East Timor was a ticking timebomb.

In March 1975, UDT and Fretilin joined forces to win the local elections. But Fretilin was surging in popularity. So, on August 11, 1975, UDT staged a coup to stop Fretilin, and the Portuguese governor fled Dili. Indonesia, keen to get involved, sent undercover soldiers and weapons to the Indonesia-East Timor border and a "civil war in East Timor" was started.

This chaotic situation in East Timor gave Indonesia the perfect pretext to invade. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia officially invaded East Timor, and formally annexed East Timor soon after. In 1978, Australia became the first and only country to recognize Indonesia's annexation. This recognition was followed by the Timor Gap Treaty between Australia and Indonesia in 1989, which provided for joint exploitation of natural resources in an area of the Timor Sea between East Timor and Australia.

"Why the Australians did not help us? They helped us when the Japanese invaded," one Timorese villager asked.

Indonesia’s annexation lasted for 24 years and would go down as the bloodiest page in East Timor history, with over 200,000 lives lost in the conflict. East Timor finally achieved its independence in 2002, but we are still waiting for the answer to this question.

Balibo, the movie

In the lead-up to the Indonesian invasion, five journalists working for Australian TV networks were sent to East Timor to report on the unrest in Australia's close neighbour. The journalists had gone missing, but no one in Australia seemed to be aware. Except for some in East Timor.

José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac), a Timorese young man who would later become East Timor's President, was one of those who knew. He travelled to Australia looking for Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), a Darwin-based journalist, to lead East Timor's new agency.

Roger East, at age 53, was reluctant to travel to East Timor but was intrigued by the whereabouts of the five missing journalists. So a deal was made, Ramos-Horta would bring East to the journalists. In exchange, Roger East would stay in East Timor to run its news agency.

The movie was shot in Dili, East Timor, offering a glimpse of East Timor to the outside world. The Indonesians may have left today, but through the movie, one can still clearly see the scars that have been left behind. Balibo scored a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and won multiple awards in Australia and Brazil.

You can watch Balibo here on Amazon Prime Video.

Alternatively, read about the details in the book Cover-up, written by Jill Jolliffe, an Australian journalist who was based in East Timor and met the men. The movie Balibo was loosely based on Cover-up.


Director: Robert Connolly

Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac

Release date: July 24, 2009

Running Time: 111 minutes

You can watch Balibo here through Amazon Prime Video, or purchase a hardcopy here on Amazon. I will receive a small commission for your purchase made through this link at no extra cost to you.