NOT much survived Indonesia’s brutal invasion of the East Timor border village of Balibo in 1975 so the preservation of journalist Greg Shackleton’s diary was a minor miracle.
Shackleton, a Channel 7 reporter, was one of five Australian journalists killed by Indonesian forces during the invasion of then Portuguese Timor.
He is a central figure in director Robert Connolly’s new film Balibo.
Australian actor Damon Gameau plays Shackleton in the film and said the survival of the primary source document informed his portrayal of the brave young journalist.
“As an acting tool for me it was an absolute gift because Greg was very detailed about his journey in Timor,” he said.
“He would write little poems about the towns he was in so it was a real insight into his mind and what he was thinking.
“Greg’s diary revealed his love for the place and he knew he had to get his story out to stop the invasion because he knew what would happen.
“He knew that the people would be decimated and he wanted to get that truth out as well.”
Gameau admitted his portrayal of Shackleton’s final news report from Timor was an immense challenge.
Just days after Shackleton recorded the piece the Balibo Five were murdered by Indonesian forces.
“That was a most nerve wracking part for me because of how well-known and respected that footage is,” Gameau said.
“It has been an honour portraying Greg.”
The film tells the story of journalist Roger East’s attempt to find out what really happened to the Balibo Five just a month after they were murdered. East, played by Anthony La Paglia, does not accept the official line that the five were caught in crossfire but his own search also ends badly at the hands of the Indonesian military. While acknowledging that the murder of six journalists was a tragedy, Gameau also points out that their demise has opened a window on a more wide reaching nightmare for the East Timorese people.
“It is very sad that there has been no inquest into Roger East’s death. He is the forgotten one in this whole process,” Gameau says.
“The story gets bigger and bigger the more you investigate it as you discover the atrocity that was perpetrated on the Timorese people. It becomes much greater than what happened to six journalists and raises big questions about how concerned the Australian government has been about this topic where 180,000 Timorese people died.
“The Timorese acknowledge that the Balibo Five are an important part of their history because they have kept the spotlight on their country. There is something very ironic about that.”
Virtually every family in East Timor experienced loss as a result of the 24-year Indonesian occupation. Gameau witnessed first hand the emotion of that loss in the re-creation of a key scene.
“The second day we were in Timor the massacre scene on the wharf was filmed with about 150 extras. Because it was so much a part of their story, for take after take they would be weeping and committing to the story with incredible performances,” Gameau says.
“It was their way of sharing this with the rest of the world. To see that on our second day in Timor put a rocket up all of us and made us realise how important it was for us to do our job properly.
“I still wonder how much we have learned from history. Robert Connolly and I were in Helsinki about six weeks ago for the IPI (International Press Institute) conference and they track the journalists around the world. Over 100 journalists were killed last year and it made it clear to me that the gap between what we are being told by governments and what is really going on is vast. Those journalists were killed last year in the pursuit of truth and the Balibo Five started that in many ways because they were directly targeted for their own courageous stand.”
*Balibo is screening at Palace Cinemas at the Barracks in Petrie Tce.