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The truth shall set you free

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.

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.

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.

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  1. Hello, it's sad to hear that the film of Balibo was cancelled to be screened in Jakarta last November. I personally think that as an Indonesian it is important to see the movie. As young generation I'm hoping it really contained the truth so that i could learn the way how to deal with our history and to be healed from our historical burden.
    Is there any possibility for me to get one copy of it ?
    kind regards, nina at Jakarta

  2. Yes there is. The director of the film realises that there is no way a public screening will be permitted in Indonesia, so has kindly created a DVD version complete with Bahasa Indonesia subtitles. He is actually ENCOURAGING piracy of this video since he wants it to be seen and it won't be screened in an Indonesian cinema.

    I have an idea! Why don't you go to the JFCC website, get their phone number and ask Dora, the manager of the club if she knows how to get a copy. There are a whole bunch of legal (as far as the intellectual property right-holder is concerned) ones. I'm sure They can guide you in the right direction.

    My understanding is that it is only illegal to have a public screening of the film; the DVDs themselves are legal copies.

    Good luck! If you still can't get a copy, please email me and I'll see what I can do.

  3. Thanks for your response. I did contacted JFCC yesterday but unfortunately the one who spoke to me at the phone sounded quite unfriendly and instead asking me to call something like Film festival agency. She said the movie has nothing to do with them. i was so discouraged.
    How about the plan of displaying the movie on dec 6th and 10th at Blitz Megaplex, is it gonna happen ?
    rgrds, nina

  4. Dear Nina and everyone else interested in seeing Balibo:

    As far as I know, neither JFCC nor anyone else is distributing copies of the Balibo DVD.

    I just know that the production company has no objection to its unorthodox copying and distribution here in Indonesia. JFCC was only offering to screen it, but as a law abiding group,chose to abide by the Indonesian prohibition against its screening for the public.

    Nevertheless, if you contact me personally or even scour the usual markets, I'm sure a copy can be found for private viewing. The producers, although they assert their intellectual property rights have agreed to waive them here in Indonesia where legal public screenings will not be be permitted. If you get stuck and can't find a copy anywhere, perhaps you should contact me personally and I'll try my best to get you hooked up with a copy.

    I, of course will obey all the Indonesian laws regarding the film's ban for public screening and although I'd like to see interested parties have an opportunity to see it, I won't break the law.

    Certainly neither will the JFCC!


  5. How kind. Thank you.

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