#Balibo, Censorship and Indonesian Democracy

What to make of the film Balibo.? It’s not the sort of film I could ever say that I enjoyed.  While not as harrowing as Savior, the 1998 Balkans war film, it had it’s harrowing moments.  Although Balibo is banned in Indonesia it’s widely available there.

I’d imagine that the Indonesian people, as distinct from the Indonesian military, will welcome this film.  It is not critical of the Indonesian people.  My experience in general is that the Timorese people, understand that Indonesian democracy and their own independence have confronted a similar challenge in the excessive power of the Indonesian military.  Fortunately events have moved on, East Timor is independent and democracy is growing in Indonesia and the military has lost it’s special status.

On Tuesday 15 December the Indonesian journalists association threatened to fight a ban on the war movie “Balibo” with a challenge through the Constitutional Court if the government enforces its countrywide prohibition.  The Jakarta Globe reports that the film “was withdrawn from the Dec. 4-12 Jakarta International Film Festival due to the ban”, but it observes that lawyer Christiana Chelsia Chan, who helped achieve the lifting of bans of five previously banned films, argues that the grounds for lifting the ban on Baibo are the same.

While I didn’t enjoy Balibo I think it’s an important film.  Not only does it chronicle a rather shameful part of our region’s recent history, but it is widely circulating in Indonesia, where it is becoming clear to all who view it that 183,000 East Timorese lost their lives under 24 years of Indonesian military occupation.

Cinematically, parts of the film reminded me of Thin Red Line. Those beautiful diversions, images of fish and of forest canopy reflected in mountain streams offered us glimpses of nature, unchanged and unresponsive to the torment and suffering of humans.  This aside the film was grave and a clear reminder that military machines lack compassion and crave secrecy.

Despite the excesses of Suharto’s military in East Timor one would be wrong in assuming that this was exclusively Indonesian violence, or that Indonesians have a unique capacity for violence.  Clearly the Suharto regime was aided and abetted by Western powers, who were then happy to assume the moral high ground when things got out of hand.

The ban on the film by the Indonesian National Film Censorship Board (LSF) has been a very effective way of promoting the film.  DVD shops across the country are selling pirated copies of the film.  Some have it openly showing on screens in the shops. According to the Jakarta Globe , The pirated version of the movie is reportedly decent in quality with accurate subtitles.

Prior to the ban, Balibo had a very small market, primarily attracting curious expatriates, journalists and hard core movie buffs.

In October 1998 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) program Foreign Correspondent, aired a 58 minute documentary on the Balibo Five. I’ve just found this 10 minute fragment on YouTube.

An interview with Anthony La Paglia, the film’s Producer and also the actor who played the journalist, Roger East, in the film.

The film is based on the book Cover Up by Jill Jolliffe.

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