Bali 2002 review – Bali bombings mini-series is out of its depth

In his great speculative essay The Cinema of the Future, theorist and cinematographer Morton Heilig argued there’s no such thing as films that are “too” realistic. “When either too much or too little is given,” he wrote, “there just isn’t any ‘realism’.”

Heilig’s words returned to my mind after watching Bali 2002, a four-part series set during and after the 2002 Bali bombings: the horrific event almost 20 years ago that killed more than 200 people that is seared into both Australia and Indonesia’s psyche.

At various points the directors, Peter Andrikidis and Katrina Irawati Graham, attempt too much realism and too little, ultimately creating – according to Heilig – none at all.

An example of the former (attempting too much realism) is a graphic re-enactment of the bomb blasts in busy nightspots Paddy’s Bar and Sari Club. The camera twirls around revellers on the dancefloor, before transitioning to slow-motion footage showing the terrorist detonate a device attached to his chest. We don’t just see the explosions; we watch flames engulfing several people, the shots lingering just long enough to observe their faces at the moment of impact.

An example of the latter (too little realism) is an immersion-breaking moment right at the start, with misty-eyed Balinese woman Ni-Luh Erniati (Sri Ayu Jati Kartika) staring into the lens and breaking the fourth wall. Alternating between English and Indonesian, Ni-Luh Erniati expresses vague spiritual commentary, as if supposed to symbolise the soul of the country: “Good and evil are balanced. The world cannot have good without the bad … but Bali, nothing bad could happen here … what did we do wrong to make the gods angry?”

This moment is intended to engage us directly, but paradoxically has a distancing effect. The directors break immersion in other ways, for instance splicing in occasional news footage of actual events. This technique is relatively common, but it gets weird in the third episode, which follows inspirational AFL player and survivor Jason McCartney (Sean Keenan) as he trains hard, determined to return to the footy oval. The episode ends with footage of the real McCartney, who of course looks very different from the actor playing him.

Other victims of the attacks include newlywed UK citizen Polly Miller (Claudia Jessie) and Australians Nicole McClean (Elizabeth Cullen) and Jono Liddel (William Lodder). After the bombings, Richard Roxburgh and Rachel Griffiths are inserted into the drama, broadening its scope with their portrayals of AFP commander Graham Ashton and plastic surgeon Dr Fiona Wood respectively. Roxburgh’s plotline is the most engaging, depicting friction between AFP investigators and Indonesian authorities, each operating in starkly different political contexts.

Related: Nitram review – intensely disquieting and extraordinary Port Arthur massacre film

In this thread you can sense the writers (Justin Monjo, Kris Wyld and Michael Toisuta) approaching somewhere nuanced, though the show is obviously out of its depth during climactic moments such as the arresting of a suspected terrorist and an interrogation room sequence.

Bali 2002 feels like a very loose simulation of historical events, aspiring for nail-biting dramatic reenactment (like in Hotel Mumbai) and the catharsis drawn from a successful large-scale police investigation (like in The Stranger), but coming up well short.

Another recent production connected to a dark chapter in Australian history, the Martin Bryant biopic Nitram, was surrounded by controversy from its inception, prompting much discussion including the familiar question: “why go there?” By contrast, Bali 2002 appears to have caused almost no controversy at all. Don’t the same ethical questions apply?

The director of Nitram, Justin Kurzel, chose not to recreate the Port Arthur massacre, or even refer to Bryant by name. Andrikidis and Graham, on the other hand, can’t resist reducing the horrific bomb blasts to money shots, periodically returned to via flashback.

The show’s weird immersion-breaking moments occur all the way until the closing credits, which feature images of actual people next to the actors playing them. Again this is pretty standard, but the soundtrack adds a jarring element: we hear the actors talking about the characters they just embodied, but in the third person (says Roxburgh: “Following the bombings, Graham Ashton was appointed head of terrorism for the Australian Federal Police …”).

It’s hard to say whether this strange final flourish is a matter of attempting too much realism, or too little. Morton Heilig would argue the end result is the same: none at all.

• Bali 2002 premieres on Stan on 25 September