The Jakarta International Film Festival applied to the government censor for the right to show the film as part of JIFFEST. At the same time, the producers provided the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (JFCC) with a copy of the film. Not unpredictably, the censors dragged their feet and did not get back to the JIFFEST people. Meanwhile, the JFCC arranged a private screening of Balibo for members and invited guests. We had such a demand that we rented one of the big theatres at Jakarta’s swank Blitz Megaplex for Tuesday, December 1.
JAKARTA, INDONESIA – On October 16, 1975, five journalists working for Australian television networks died in Balibo, in what was then known as Portuguese Timor. Wide speculation and rumour accompanied the shootings of the reporters and cameramen who were covering the war, but in 2007, an Australian coroner’s inquiry determined that the journalists were killed by Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus). The Indonesian government has all along maintained that the dead were unfortunate victims, caught in a crossfire. Evidence gathered from witnesses and by the Australian coroner’s inquiry concludes that the deaths were no accident, but that the journalists were specifically targeted.
It all sounds like the makings of an exciting movie. Which is why the movie has been made. Recently released worldwide in theatres, Balibo has received wide critical acclaim and has been nominated for just about every Australian and other film award for which it’s eligible. Sounds like a film that every Indonesian should see, doesn’t it? A dramatised account of a relatively recent historical interest, filmed to illustrate an alternative sequence of events to the official version; that’s exactly the kind of thing any thinking Indonesian would want to see. And that’s exactly what the Indonesian government doesn’t want Indonesians to see. Or perhaps the government of Indonesia simply doesn’t approve of thinking Indonesians.
Just hours before the screening, while I was stuck in traffic on the way to the screening, in fact, word came down that the censors had refused JIFFEST the right to show the film. Hurried calls to legal counsel warned us against screening Balibo under the circumstances. It was felt that the Indonesian government would not see our invitation-only screening (the tickets for which included a donation of all proceeds after our overhead for a special fund to support journalists in Timor) as a private affair. The lawyers also felt that by screening the film the day of the decision itself would be taken as a challenge to the censors’ authority, or at least their sense of self importance.
The members of the JFCC executive committee held an urgent meeting in the theatre itself while hundreds of people who had paid for their tickets and contributed to the fund, milled around outside. Inside we were torn. Most of us were instinctively inclined to say to hell with the censors, run the film, and deal with any repercussions later. Nevertheless, after a hurried discussion we took the final position that as an ad hoc association of largely foreign journalists, we as an association and the audience members themselves were highly vulnerable as a group and as individuals for disrespecting the censors’ decision in such a public and confrontational way.
We made the announcement to a disappointed but very gracious audience. We told them that anyone who wanted their money back could simply call our office and we’d refund it. We were prepared to take a bath on the wasted theatre rental. Most people I spoke to said that they wouldn’t bother asking for a refund and that we should put the money in the fund.
However, we did offer one little perk. Balibo’s producers have given us permission to reproduce and distribute the DVD. They even added Bahasa Indonesia subtitles. So for all of those who want to see the film, feel free to contact me or the JFCC, and I’m sure we could guide you to someone who might be able to provide you with a copy of the movie.
I’ll be picking up my copy in the next day or two, and I expect that I’ll have a review of the film to post soon.
In the meantime a group of foreign and local journalists repaired to one of our partner establishments just across the street, MO’s bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where we drank martinis and second guessed our decision, embraced by the world class hospitality and ambience of one of Jakarta’s finest hotels. Thanks for everything, to the staff and management who took such care of us and always does. See you at our JFCC Christmas party. I’ll have a DVD for you.