Thursday, August 13, 2009
The film reviewed below is based on actual events, events that have been germinal to Australian politics and Australia’s relationships with its Asian neighbours.
For this reason and because of my own interest in the story, I’ve claimed ‘blogger’s privilege’ for this entry and the review is unashamedly partisan – it should really be seen as a combination of review and comment. Because of the importance of the events dealt with in the film I’ve also included far more plot and factual background than I normally would in a review. Apologies if too much is given away.
In October 1975, in the last weeks of the reformist Whitlam government, five young Australia-based newsmen went missing in the garrison town of Balibo in what was then known as Portuguese Timor.
With the Portuguese colonialists gone, this tiny country was trying to build an independent government through its Fretilin forces. But the world powers had other plans – a looming invasion by Indonesia that had been sanctioned by the USA and the UK and encouraged by Whitlam himself.
And while refugees and journalists were starting to flee the fighting in fear of their lives, the five journos and cameramen – Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart from Channel Seven, and Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie from Channel Nine – were determined to discover the truth, and to send images of the invasion out to the world.
The Balibo Five were executed by the Indonesian military soon after filming the advance of the infantry troops into Balibo. They died because they were journalists relaying vital information. And in December, as the Indonesians swarmed the capital, Dili, an Australian freelance journalist who set out to discover the truth of their disappearance, Roger East, was also brutally killed.
The ghastly fate of the Balibo Five has been a national wound for the past 34 years, with the Australian Government remorselessly covering up its knowledge of the way they died to maintain its friendship with Indonesia. Balibo, directed by Robert Connolly (The Bank, Three Dollars) vividly dramatises the chain of events that led to their untimely deaths, while also shedding light on the death of the lesser-known East. But it does much more than that.
Balibo is a political thriller that unfolds in a semi-documentary style. Almost two hours long, it nevertheless moves at a brisk, efficient, near-perfect pace. The masterful hand of playwright David Williamson, who cowrote the script along with Connolly, is evident, but Connolly and Williamson parted ways when it became clear to the director that the Timorese, and not just the fate of the Balibo Five, needed to be the focus of the film.
This emphasis comes through in the film’s structure, which comprises two framing devices, one within the other. The first is an encounter between the nine-year-old Juliana Da Costa, a fictional composite of the hundreds of witnesses to the bloodthirsty invasion of Dili in December 1975, and veteran journo Roger East. Juliana meets and befriends East in the weeks after his arrival in Dili, and later witnesses his bloody execution on Dili Wharf. (Anamaria Barreto is an understated stand-out in this role.) The film opens with the adult Da Costa relating this traumatic event to the Timor-Leste Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.
Cut to shots of Roger East in 1975, before his trip to Timor, in a cushy public relations job in Darwin. A young José Ramos-Horta, a Fretilin leader, insistently offers him a job as head of a Timorese official news agency, to bring the truth of the struggle to the world. East finds out about the five missing newsmen and the impending Indonesian invasion, and he’s sold.
Another cut, to a few weeks earlier and the chaotic summoning of the five newsmen to an exciting assignment in Timor that will make their careers. As East and Horta travel south-west to Balibo through the Timorese mountains to find out the fate of the newsmen, this second set of flashbacks dramatise the newsmen’s doomed journey to the invading army and the emotional heart of Timor.
The odyssey of the newsmen and their unhappy end is signalled by grainy colour footage and camera angles reminiscent of aged television footage from the period. This has the obvious advantage of clearly signalling the flashback scenes, but it’s also a tribute to the journos and cameramen, their dedication to their vocation, their determination to get the story out no matter what. And it deftly turns these often torturous scenes into ‘news’ that should have been shown but wasn’t, ‘news’ that was covered up for too long.
Much of the main action of the film was shot in Timor-Leste, which adds further to the documentary feel. It’s especially poignant and powerful that the murder of the Five was largely shot at the small house, dubbed the Australia House, in which they were killed.
The character of Horta, a firebrand with brains, pervades the film. Looking like an Asian Che Guevara, Oscar Isaac gives Horta a combination of sexiness, impish charm and iron-willed certainty about his cause and the rights of his people.
Horta’s freshness and optimism are a counter to the jadedness of Anthony LaPaglia’s Roger East. LaPaglia, who specialises in world-weary characters, plays the 52-year-old East in a way that is predictably satisfying. His East is driven by a stubborn, obsessive determination, and a commitment to the truth that eventually becomes all-encompassing.
As East and Horta journey south-west to Balibo on foot in a quest to discover the truth about the newsmen’s disappearance, East becomes a stand-in for the white members of the audience and a symbol of an older, now wiser Australia, led by the Timorese in a discovery of this tiny country, so geographically close to us and so unforgivably forgotten. Horta, in turn, becomes a symbol for all countries trying to emerge from a colonial past.
The film’s own neocolonial urges are beautifully dramatised and countered by a fight between East and Horta in a swimming pool at an abandoned mission school. As they tussle in the water, Horta’s viewpoint – that the pending massacres of Timorese are what matters now – literally tussles with the film’s own urge to tell us the story of the Balibo Five while keeping the suffering of the Timorese as exotic background.
This anti-imperialist turn is repeated throughout the film. As East journeys further into the Timorese hinterland and confronts the ruthless military incursions already taking place, his awakening is reflected in the growing understanding of the five newsmen, just weeks earlier, of the rightness of the Fretilin struggle and the shocking indifference of the world.
The film continues to enact its own encounter with Timorese culture and aspirations. From the start it’s Timorese songs we hear on the soundtrack, political and military anthems that are sometimes sung by children. These are seamlessly combined with an original score by Australian Lisa Gerrard, as well as additional music by Marcello De Francisci and Sam Petty.
The camera embraces the beauty of the Timorese countryside, with sweeping scenes of picturesque mountain vistas and coastlines sometimes marred by Indonesian violence. More importantly, it uses close-ups to dramatise the humanity of the Timorese people – of women mourning as they bury the massacred; faces marred by shock and terror as the Indonesians swoop on Dili; Timorese children in wrapt silence as elders tell ancient creation stories. Connolly’s commitment to consulting with the Timorese and using Timorese actors, including as extras in the crowd scenes, pays off handsomely here.
In fact, one of my fears about the film before seeing it – which is not to do with the story itself but its representation – was that it would wallow in national congratulation of our eternal mythic figure, the larrikin. Thankfully it doesn’t. Of course, the larrikin turns up in the characters of the Balibo Five, despite the fact that only two were Australian; it’s impossible not to be charmed by the equal ability of these twenty-somethings to have a beer, muck around with the local kids, and thoughtlessly put themselves in harm’s way to get their story.
Yet rather than the larrikin ideal taking over, the newsmen’s casual but committed approach brings into full relief the tragedy of the slow death of journalism in Australia since the 1970s. Although there’s a joke between the journos about the relevance of Channel 9 – as early as 1975! – it’s simply impossible to estimate the loss of news values on commercial television between then and now.
The scene of the journalists’ unfortunate deaths is full of tension and sadness. It’s extremely moving, but to those who have known the story for years it might also be cathartic. I don’t mean this in any trivial way; knowing something evil has happened is very different from seeing the reality of it fully re-enacted in front of your eyes. This is the beauty of film: it brings significant stories into the public realm, and makes them part of the national story. Like psychotherapy, a re-enactment such as this can help to heal what has become a hidden national trauma for Australia.
There’s not a false beat in the film. The slow burn of the invasion, with the re-creation of warships lurking silently on the coastline, is chilling and the eruptions of planned violence and organised cruelty don’t spare the viewer.
One drawback of the documentary style, though, is that we don’t actually get to know the main characters very well. So even though the deaths of the six newsmen are shocking and confronting, we know next to nothing about their families and loved ones, the wider webs of their lives. This lessens the overall emotional impact of the film somewhat, although not the urgency of the story.
For it’s a classic tale that’s being played out here: the narrow practice of Realpolitik, which considers a country’s strategic interests only, pitted against the Western ideal of human rights. The idea of Timor-Leste as a new and emerging future nation also pulses through the film, giving a sense of hope that only the most idealistic participants of the time could have felt; the young Horta shows a touching prescience when he decides to go into exile to advocate for his young country.
The narrative arc of the film, and therefore the factual information at the end, is concerned with Timor’s eventual achievement of independence, so it can only hint at the horrific events that followed for years afterwards. Some reviewers have also rightfully complained about the film’s lack of information about the collusion of the Australian Government with Indonesia, a significant omission given the likely ignorance of an international audience about Australia’s role.
What the Australian Government ended up sanctioning was not only a military invasion but the brutal subjugation of a people. It’s estimated that about 200,000 Timorese people died in the three years following the invasion, and there was widespread, officially sanctioned rape, including that of young girls; sadistic torture and killing methods; attempted genocide through interbreeding; imprisonment, starvation and disease; and chemical destruction of forests, crops and livestock.
It’s important to note that despite the documentary feel, many scenes in the film are reconstructions that did not occur literally but represent a larger truth. The Balibo in Depth website has excellent information about the ways in which the actual events and the action of the film variously match and diverge.
At the heart of this film is a searing question about the moral basis of Australian democracy, and in particular the credentials of two leaders – Whitlam and Fraser – whom history has lauded for their common interest in social justice. The film ultimately questions the biggest myth of all – that Australia is a land that worships the fair go and champions the underdog –and exposes it as a load of old bulldust.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
D’Elsi – Elsi 1, 2007
85 x 56 cm
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany, 2007
Courtesy Fiedler Contemporary, Köln
Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany, 2007
If you missed the recent Andreas Gursky exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, don’t despair. Now’s your chance to look at what the next generation of German photographers are up to – and it’s well worth a trip along the hilly, gumtree-lined streets of Mount Waverley.
Presentation/representation: photography from Germany, at the Monash Gallery of Art, showcases the work of ten leading contemporary German photographers. They’re part of the generation that followed Gursky and his fellow practitioners Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer, who were taught by Bernd Becher at the famous Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. This exhibition has been curated by Thomas Weski, who also curated the Gursky survey at the NGV.
Technological developments such as digital processing and CGI threaten to destroy the concept of photography as a separate category of artistic practice. They’ve also helped to kill the notion that its role is to provide an authentic, neutral record of ‘real life’. Some artists, of course, combine photography with other media to produce work that is totally uninterested in the idea of an ‘original’.
The work of these younger artists suggests that such changes have only served to expand the category of photography, enabling them, as Weski puts it, to ‘explore its limits, or try out new possibilities of artistic creation’. These photographers have by and large embraced the new technologies, accepting that the photographic image is always a construct, thereby blurring the distinctions between photography and other more obviously artificial art forms.
Although it’s impossible to isolate an underlying theme in these ten disparate artists, there is often a willingness to embrace the realities of modern urban life without unnecessarily uglifying or abjecting them.
It’s pleasantly surprising to find that this kind of survey is still able to offer an experience of visual discovery, a certain delight in the novelty of unfamiliar if sometimes mundane worlds beyond the tourist trail, not necessarily in Germany. Surely this was one of the aims of Wiebke Loeper in her series An die Schwestern des Carl Möglin (To the sisters of Carl Möglin).
This series is a fictional response to ancestors of Loeper’s who migrated to Melbourne from their home town of Wismar in former East Germany in the nineteenth century. The two sisters kept in touch with their Wismar relatives by sending back descriptive letters and gifts from their new home, artefacts that have been largely preserved in Wismar, a town that has suffered economically since the reunification of Germany.
Loeper’s visual response, a series of colour photographs depicting modern Wismar, is accompanied by a poignant letter that offers these works as gifts to the sisters and inform them of the fortunes of their home town, which ‘has not prospered’. Loeper seems determined to preserve some documentary function for photography, even if she does not believe that objective reality is possible or even desirable. Her pictures also acknowledge intergenerational debts and communication, as well as the idea of change, itself in some ways under threat in a world increasingly stuck in an eternal present.
Medium, then, becomes not something to be commented on for its own sake but a means to preserve links with the past, to acknowledge its humanity and our debt to it, and to stress the continuity between past struggles and those that continue. The pictures depict street and suburban scenes often devoid of people, with flashes of colour that signal a necessary optimism in the face of economic decline.
There’s a single-gabled roof that seems to peer over a high fence onto two empty disabled parking spaces; half-built mass-produced housing; a steep road in a denuded landscape on which cars are parked desultorily; an overly cheery orange door set in the front wall of a terrace house and framed by a wonderful climbing rose. It’s fitting that these photographs are being shown in Melbourne – ‘I am sending you a few pictures and with them come my best wishes’, writes Loeper.
The subject matter of Laurenz Berges’s large, imposing prints, redolent of absence and lost social and work formations, seems allied to that of Tacita Dean, who recently exhibited at ACCA in Melbourne. Like some of Dean’s work, Berges’s pictures show the interiors (and sometimes exteriors) of abandoned, formerly functional buildings – in this case, houses in Etzweiler and Garzweiler, German towns that were depopulated when their major industry, coal strip mining, was shut down.
But Berges, unlike Dean, embraces artificiality: dramatic light and shadow, and what appears to be digital enhancement, give a quasi-beauty to these spaces. For instance, in both versions of ‘Gesolai’, 2001 (there are two works with this title), the flecks of textured wallpaper seem almost painterly. And the soft light in ‘Etzweiler’, 2000 gives even the cigarette butts and pieces of fluff and detritus a degree of order and patterning.
This kind of valorisation of the real – where everyday objects become beautiful because they’re drenched with extra effect – is used to create very different moods in a series that embraces nature, D’Elsi, 2007 by Heidi Specker.
The series, not all of which appears here, comprises a mostly displaced portrait of Elsi, a woman Specker met on a visit to Davos in Switzerland. Specker became fascinated with Elsi and her unconventional lifestyle, and she expresses this fascination through large colour shots of Elsi’s surroundings, the Alpine landscape, and Elsi herself that together form a narrative of her life.
These pictures are very carefully composed, presenting nature in a way that makes no attempt to be ‘natural’, but rather perhaps is an essay on how we see things in new ways when we see them through the eyes of others. There are some truly stunning pictures here – swathes of thickly set pine tree branches with small bright red berries (‘D’Elsi, Pass 4’, 2007); close-ups of brown fungal-looking mushrooms (‘D’Elsi, Mushroom 1’ and ‘D’Elsi, Mushroom 2’, 2007); a close-up shot of carefully stacked logs against a door, the colours and textures warm and solid looking (‘D’Elsi, Hut’, 2007).
The picture of Elsi shows her from a side view, her face invisible behind a curtain of long, dark, shiny hair. She seems elemental – we don’t need to see her face because the other pictures express what she is. There’s an undeniable sexual aspect to these works, not so much indicating individualised desire, but rather suggesting that the force of Elsi gives a heightened meaning and richness to a world that is always inevitably subjective.
The idea of the fetish is not entirely absent but I don’t think that’s the point here. So drenched with hyperreal colour and minute, microscopic detail are these stunning scenes that nature becomes not so much artificial as aesthetically indistinguishable from the constructed world.
That world is very much the focus of Uschi Huber’s series Fronten 2006, a collection of colour prints showing shops in the German town of Cologne that have been boarded up with timber planks in preparation for the annual procession on Carnival Monday. The photographs appear to have been taken in a bright morning light that shows them off to their best effect.
The accompanying text explains that the buildings ‘lose their identities and become simple sculptural forms’. I wasn’t so aware of this initially: the boarding-up process had been done very neatly, but it did not render more than a few the buildings sculptural in my eyes. However, it certainly stripped them of their commercial identities and rendered them strangely anonymous.
Pictures of boarded-up shops in, say, a US downtown might evoke notions of civil unrest or loss of civil space due to economic downturn or the advent of malls. In contrast, these photographs suggest a certain kind of tolerance for the non-commercial and a mode of preparation for the carnivalesque that is not over the top, a kind of accommodation to the civic and possibly non-commercial aspects of life. Perhaps I’m wrong – the procession is obviously boisterous and to some extent lawless – but these works hint at a kind of commerce that does not obliterate, one that can live alongside other aspects of life.
Of course, there is never just one simple theme when a photographer considers ‘urban life’. Take Forward Motion 2005 by Nicola Meitzner, a series of black-and-white shots of the megalopolis of Tokyo, taken in 2005. Shots of the many elements of what might seem a typical urban jungle – layers of electrical cables, rows of parked cars, billboards, vending machines, a monorail, a huge terminal – are interspersed with close-up portraits of four Japanese people, three of whom look young and either optimistic or wistful, and one who shows the early signs of jadedness. The series is perhaps a comment on the complexities of Japanese society and ontology rather than some kind of treatise on urban alienation.
I was struck by how neat, if relatively harsh and uncomfortable, so much of the environment was, as if the famous Japanese love of order and communality overlaid the harshness of late capitalism. The tension between the human scale and the overly large was everywhere but seemed to be held in check. There was little that was obviously traditional about the streetscapes but there was also none of the chaos of a similarly large city such as New York.
The individual portraits seemed a plea against a view of Tokyo that might combine a knowledge of its communal aspects and its hugeness with an underlying racism – ‘they’re all the same’ – although they were also a contrast to the plainness (rather than ugliness) of the environment.
Albrecht Fuchs’s portraits of artists, which move away from this urban theme, are a definite highlight. Although to non-Europeans many, if not all, of these faces may be unfamiliar (I didn’t know any of them) this didn’t diminish their power for me.
These colour portraits, relatively modest in size, have a power that comes from an obsession with composition. The colours of the backgrounds and the subjects’ clothes, the setting, the stance and expression of the subjects – all appear to be ‘just right’, every element in order, as if no other composition would have ‘worked’. And yet the settings (which appear to be the home environments of the subjects) and in many cases the stances are quite informal, as if the photographer wanted such a smooth look as to suggest he himself had been erased.
Yet of course he is everywhere, and in a funny way the portraits represent him, because they depict the artists he most admires. Certainly all the subjects stare quite intently at the viewer, which has the odd effect of giving the portraits a strange kind of uniformity, despite the varied faces, poses and settings. The faces of the subjects also suggest the kind of strong but intangible inner life that makes these photographs so successful.
There is lots more to savour here – among others, the work of Matthias Koch, who offers new perspectives on historically significant sites in Germany (Koch was a guest of the MGA for a short time, during which he conducted artist talks, student tutorials and a workshop and field trip). And Karin Geiger’s large-format photographs offer intriguing scenarios that may or may not be staged, in settings where the urban and the rural meet.
Presentation/representation can be seen at the Monash Gallery of Art, 860 Ferntree Gully Road Wheelers Hill, until 30 August.