Humanitarian Themes in Brisbane

in 18th St George Bank Brisbane International Film Festival

by Tim Milfull

A firm humanitarian theme ran through this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival, with several films touching on, or embracing the impact of displacement on disenfranchised communities or suppressed minorities. Khoa Do’s Missing Water pulls all the emotional strings in a very theatrical experiment about Vietnamese boat people; and in Gulabi Talkies, Girish Kasaravalli tells the tale of the charming midwife Gulabi, whose minority status as a Muslim in a mostly Hindu eventually lead to heartbreak; while in Roots, Father Joseph Pulinthanath, continues on from his first film about the persecution of women branded as witches, to make a film whose ownership he lays confidently at the feet of the Tripura people, who starred in and contributed their stories to the film, and proudly spoke in their own language, Kokborok. Like Canadian-Chinese director Yung Chang’s sublime observational documentary Up the Yangtze (2007), Pulinthanath is offering a chance for a displaced people to tell their stories; in this case, what happened when the construction of the Dumbar Dam inundated the Raima Valley, and the homes of an entire community.

Further to the ‘displaced people’ theme, Pulinthanath’s story about the Indian government relocating Bangladeshi Hindus into the Tripura region, parallels the situation between Israel and the Gaza Strip and Palestine. In Laila’s Birthday, writer-director Rashid Masharawi tells a classic fish-out-of-water story, with his dignified but unemployed judge, Abu Laila forced to drive his brother-in-law’s taxi to support his family. As he drives the streets of Palestine avoiding any fares to border checkpoints, Abu encounters the region’s diverse population, all the while struggling to maintain his dignity, and remember to be home in time for his daughter’s birthday. Mashawari very skillfully uses a simple premise to tell a complex and entertaining story.

By now, anyone even remotely aware of modern history in the Australasian region will be aware of the last three awful decades that the tiny nation of East Timor has endured as a result of its annexation by Indonesia in 1975. In the lead-up to the invasion, three television journalists led by presenter Greg Shackleton, were tramping the hills of the former Portuguese colony, looking to film evidence of Indonesia’s treachery. At the same time, two rivals were racing to the country to try and scoop their competitors—the more things change, the more things stay the same…

Balibo begins nearly a month after the five journalists ceased contact with their stations. Fretilin freedom fighter, Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac)—later to win a Nobel Peace Prize and become Timor Leste’s President—has traveled to Darwin to enlist veteran journalist, Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) for the role of the head of his country’s fledgling news agency. East is so exhausted and cynical after a career covering the world’s hotspots, that it takes some convincing for him to even visit Dili to consider the position. When he arrives, however, he learns of the missing men, and sets out with Ramos-Horta to visit the last place they were seen, and perhaps work out what happened.

Walking into a film like Balibo with even a little bit of knowledge about the story behind the film can be dangerous, because what ends up happening is that you sit on the edge of the seat filled with a sense of dread at what you know for sure is coming. Even so, when the material is in the very capable hands of filmmakers like Robert Connelly and David Williamson and the seasoned performances of actors like LaPaglia, we can be sure that the treatment of a true, tragic story like this will be satisfying and rewarding, if it might be heartrending.

This important film reminds us of the naivety, idealism and opportunism of youth, and the cynicism and exhaustion of age. It tells of the changing face of our media and its approaches in conveying truth and perceptions of truth. In some ways, it is a conventional thriller, and yet even with the certainty of history tempering its direction, the ending manages to be shocking and confronting. Finally, most importantly, “Balibo” uses three intimate, very personal and tragic stories to paint a broader picture of the birth pangs of one of our youngest nations. In doing so, its filmmakers remind us that there are still questions to be answered, still stories to be told, still people who need to be heard.

Those looking for even more information about the film should visit its excellent website, which reveals a raft of authentic evidence and background material behind the story told by Connolly, Williamson, Tony Maniaty, and Tony LaPaglia.