I saw Balibo tonight on the big screen, in the first row. The mortars and explosions nearly knocked us out of our seats.

Let me start with a disclaimer. I know it is annoying. But this is something that I personally to need to recognize more often. Those who are interested in Timorese history (and by interested I mean obsessed), those who have lived that history whether in Timor or in exile, often have a fiercely personal relationship to all representations of the place. It becomes hard to peel away emotional layers which we have painted over the course of events.

As a movie-goer, I felt the film was effectively framed, with great pacing and enough attention to detail to merit praise. I thought the historical footage was artfully spliced with footage recently shot in Dili. There was enough micro/macro for a political thriller about an “obscure” place. Enough soapbox rants balanced with enough authenticity.

However, as somebody perhaps afflicted by this palimpsest of the personal and the political, the film did not reach down beneath the surface. (Perhaps it simply could not.)

Lapaglia’s performance was solid – not overdone in any way, which is crucially important. And yet, as he is being dragged along the dock on December 7, 1975 to his execution, I felt my connection to events being abruptly felled. (Please do not think that I am suggesting there should have been some contrived love story or love interest.)

Perhaps the Timorese protagonists: Ramos Horta, and two less-present members of Falintil, are not enough to create a stronger emotional “trunk” that can stay standing. The closing footage of Ramos Horta returning in 1999 is definitely not enough.

To be fair, “Balibo” is clearly a sensitive labor of love of people who had the “acumen” (quoting Lapaglia) to deal with a loaded story which calls into question our own complicity with distant injustices. Something quite rare. I believe Balibo is compelling enough to become a global arthouse film, and that it very may well be “the” Timor film for many years to come.


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