‘Balibo’: when journalists don’t see the danger around them

Some foreign movies leave you thinking that there are few real differences between countries and cultures, but then there are films like the Australian docudrama “Balibo” that keep you at a slight distance.

Set mostly in East Timor in 1975, the film is about the disappearance of five Australian television journalists who were covering the violent upheaval in the country after Portuguese rule ended and neighboring Indonesia invaded the newly independent country.

East Timor is only about 400 miles from Australia, so when the Indonesians began to kill untold thousands of people — estimates run as high as 150,000 — political activists pushed hard for the Australian government to do something about the horrendous situation.

The journalists were trying to send filmed reports of the horror back to viewers in their homeland when they disappeared in the town of Balibo and were presumed dead.

Another prominent journalist, Roger East (played in the film by Anthony LaPaglia, above right) went to East Timor to investigate, and he disappeared, too.

The movie’s obviously fictionalized depiction of what might have happened to these men is terrifying. We are placed in the position of being trapped by violent events that are rapidly spiraling into chaos, with no hope of escape.

“Balibo” gives us a ray of dramatic hope in the form of the young idealistic Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac, above left) who convinced East to come to his country and after many years eventually became one of its leaders (and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize).

The problem with “Balibo” is that this historic material is presented in a fragmented style that leaves the movie without a very coherent narrative. When you have flashbacks within flashbacks and no obvious protagonist in a movie about events that happened 37 years ago, on the other side of the world, it’s hard to stay connected.

Most of the film is devoted to the six white Australians who died while working in East Timor, leaving “Balibo” open to the same criticism that has been leveled against the Civil Rights Era dramas made in this country that have been about the problems faced by caucasian activists rather than the black people who were suffering the brunt of government-sanctioned racism.

We don’t find out about Jose Ramos-Horta’s historical importance to East Timor until the end of the film on a series of title cards.

What happened to the six journalists was awful, but to have their murders overshadow the deaths of tens of thousands of people in a country they were free to leave at any time seems insensitive.