Interview with David Bradbury

27 July 2010 | 0:00 - By Rory Medcalf

A conversation with filmmaker David Bradbury about the making of My Asian Heart.

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Philip Blenkinsop at work in Nepal.

In My Asian Heart, one uncompromising Australian chronicler of war and struggle tells the story of another. Filmmaker David Bradbury - renowned for documentaries about repression and revolution - focuses on the life of Philip Blenkinsop, a photographer who goes to exceptional lengths to create art out of the pain and courage he witnesses in Asia’s lesser-known conflicts. I spoke with David about the challenges of making this film as well as its wider relevance.

RM: My Asian Heart portrays some disturbing moments in recent Asian history, like the democracy riots in Nepal or the fate of the Hmong people in Laos, yet it is much more a character study than a political film.  What was your purpose in setting out to make the filmand did it change as the project went along?

DB: I like to make character studies of fascinating people. It has been almost 30 years since I had made Frontline [Bradbury’s Academy-Award nominated documentary about Vietnam War combat cameraman Neil Davis]. I wanted to look again at the moral dilemmas of cameramen and media people in the front lines of war and conflict and political struggles.

While making My Asian Heart, I had an unexpected opportunity to show Philip in action. We were in China to shoot a section about one of Philip’s photographic exhibitions, when things started to fall apart in Nepal – the pro-democracy riots that led to the downfall of the autocratic regime.  Philip was torn between his commitments to China and the situation in Nepal. In the end he went to Nepal, and I went too. Of course you go where the story takes you.

I deliberately shot this documentary in a cinema verité style. That to me is the point of good documentary filmmaking: to capture real people in the flesh. I am quietly proud of the cinematography in this film, especially the section in Nepal. It helps that I can operate as a one-man band, doing the sound too, which I have done for the past decade.

Towards the end of the process, Philip got a bit jaded with me following him around, because the camera, my camera, was getting in the way of his one-on-one relationship with his photographic subjects. That can always be a tension in making a study like this. But one line I agreed to was that his private life was out of bounds. I would have liked to show more of his vulnerability, a very human quality.  

This documentary uses minimal narration; it accompanies Philip into extreme situations and then lets him speak for himself. If there is a political message to the film, what it is?

Many of Philip’s images are stark and brutal. But it is Philip’s point, and it is my point, that this was the real world we live in. We talk about living on the edge of Asia, and as a nation we say that our future lies with countries in this region as they open up, yet a lot of us just seem to want the sanitised version of what goes on.

You could say that Philip’s work is political in that it is trying to bring moral conscience from the outside to people in a desperate situation.

At one harrowing point – after recounting a meeting with a hunted community of Hmong in Laos, whose Vietnam War has never ended – Philip asks what is the point of reporting suffering when it doesn’t change anything.  But he seems to have mixed motives. He is driven by inner demons.  He seeks to bear witness to moments of pain and to make art out of it.  Yet he also seems motivated to inspire outrage and political change.  What do you think really drives Philip to do what he does?

I saw Philip as a younger version of me in many ways, trying to use the camera to bring injustices to light. He may not see himself as a political activist, but his stills camera acts as a tool of activism. You could also feel his frustration and disillusion at some points. It is hard when so much of the media seeks to dumb down the story, not wanting to challenge people out of their comfort zones. Sometimes you can only hope to inform and whether the world then changes or not is in the lap of the gods.

As for what motivates him, it is a combination of factors. He is an artist who wants to express himself. He has a strong sense of justice. He can’t stand bullying. [At one highly-charged moment in the film, Philip confronts Nepalese riot police over the grievous wounding of a child protester.] He has a stubbornness. He likes physical ardour. He is a real romantic who says he might have been more suited to living in the 19th Century.

Philip concentrates much of his work of conflicts in remote parts of Asia ignored by much of the world – doomed ethnic insurgencies in Burma and Laos, the democracy struggle in Nepal. Why these fights, these people and not others?

This is exactly the point. Philip chooses to cover lesser known wars. In a way that makes his projects cursed before he starts - it is very hard to get this stuff on the Richter scale of what the media considers a war and an accepted story. Yet Philip has this strong desire to tell the story of people who don't have a voice, like the Hmong of Laos. And if somebody doesn’t go out on the edge like Philip does, then there is no change of lesser-known conflicts becoming populist, mainstream struggles, in the way that East Timor did.
 
Philip uses simple, old-fashioned techniques and technology: he uses only a black-and-white stills camera, insists on using film rather than digital, and no zoom lenses. What is the relationship between his methods and the impact of his work?

A: He has made a very personal choice, to go for the starkness of black-and-white, although I would question his insistence on sticking with film. Technology can free you up. I am both bemused by and respectful of his old-school approach. I especially like the idea of working in close. Neil Davis believed in this too, getting up close to experience the emotions of people in tense and dangerous situations. Philip criticises, as do I, the paparazzi approach to conflict photography, that relies on long lenses and distance from the action. It is hard to get a good frame or to show what people are really experiencing.

More generally, has the nature of war photography truly changed much between the days of Neil Davis and Philip Blenkinsop? How has its impact on the audience changed?

Technology is everywhere and everything is so instant and pervasive now, whether it is coverage from a mobile phone on the streets of Tehran or from a tourist’s handycam. There is so much graphic footage you can find on the internet. So there is a risk of audiences being numbed to injustice and brutality. This can actually make it harder to strike a blow for humanity or caring, and people can feel powerless. On the other hand, there was censorship then – for instance at the time the ABC refused to show the famous footage of the shooting of a Vietcong prisoner on the street in Saigon – and there are still forms of censorship. These days we have a lot of embedding of journalists with the military – the logic is to embed so that you can control what is reported.

And a great deal has not essentially changed. There are always going to be crusaders like Philip and Neil – even though they do not see themselves as crusaders. But these are people who care. Whether or not they are setting out to change the world with their photography or film-making, they put themselves in dangerous situations to expose reality.

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12 Apr 2014 6:28 AEST

Paul Andrew

From: NJ

The Struggle

Its true that journalists and photographer have risks their own lives for their professions. Their struggle should be appreciated and portrayed to the world in positive sense. My Asian Heart By is truly a amazing documentary about a photo journalist, his struggles and his passion. It was an amazing Documentary. dissertation writing services

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14 Mar 2011 18:27 AEST

Kristol

From: B.

Fate of the Hmong people in Laos

Great documentary, journalists like Philip reporting on hidden and unknown conflicts do great work, if only these stories got more coverage on tv. Those interested can buy a copy of the film at Frontline Films (www.frontlinefilms.com.au). Having been inspired by Philip's work in Laos, I'm working on a campaign run by Aust. NGO Little Survivors International to stop the genocide being committed against the Hmong people by the Laos Gov't. Go to http://www.littlesurvivors.org.au and take action.

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16 Sep 2010 16:52 AEST

Dominik Staszowski

From: Melbourne

My Asian Heart

Simply brilliant doco, loved it, it moved me so much. I fully support people who dedicate their lives to photojournalism. Being a Photographer myself I know what it takes to be in such situations, put your emotions aside and concentrate on the job at hand. Very Well documented and produced, and thanks SBS for showing this on TV.

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22 Aug 2010 12:22 AEST

jim rosenthall

From: brisbane

philip blenkinsop

one of the best things i've seen on tv in a while i waited patiently all week after seeing the trailer and i was not disappointed,i could watch it all again,anytime,thank you sbs,brilliant

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14 Aug 2010 14:37 AEST

John Austin

From: Quinninup

My Asian Heart

I respect both Philip and David - However, I was troubled by the way Philip's images were never left to speak for themselves - Every image was shown via zooming and panning - I feel this was an insult to the integrity of Philip's images - I wanted to see them shown in their full complexity and left on the screen for a far longer time Further to this, often we were shown David Bradbury's video of a subject photographed by Philip rather than the still photographs the film was ostensibly about John

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12 Aug 2010 17:15 AEST

judith-marie evans

From: Gympie, Queensland, Australia

My Asian Heart

My sentiments about this documentary are parallel to those of David, from Perth (first comment). To the very courageous Philip Blenkinsop, you're the tops, and the very best of luck to you in the future.

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10 Aug 2010 19:28 AEST

david

From: perth

What a great documentary, stunning images with a great story to tell. I was captivated by this documentary- thanks SBS. i look forward to hopefully the next installment of this brilliant photographer with a moral conscience - well done

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10 Aug 2010 0:12 AEST

Anthony Plej

From: Perth

My Asian Heart

The best documentary I have seen for aq long time. Need to get a copy, can anyone help or have any ideas please?

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10 Aug 2010 0:08 AEST

Anthony Plej

From: Perth

My Asian Heart

The best by far, need to get a copy somewhere please, any help anyone?

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09 Aug 2010 22:00 AEST

Leanne Carlton

From: Melbourne

My Asian Heart

This has to be the best thing i have seen in a long time, it just cant put into words how this has inspired my thirst to learn more about the REAL world we live in... thank you. Where can i get a copy of this doc?

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About this Blog

Rory Medcalf worked variously as an intelligence analyst, diplomat and journalist before joining the Lowy Institute in March 2007.

Rory Medcalf In a wide-ranging career, Rory Medcalf has specialised in understanding the politics of war and peace.

He has worked as an intelligence analyst, diplomat and journalist, studied conflicts first-hand from Kashmir to the Pacific to Northern Ireland, and now directs the international security program for the Lowy Institute in Sydney. His formal diplomatic
experience included a posting to New Delhi, a secondment to Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, truce monitoring following the civil war on Bougainville, and contributing to nuclear disarmament projects including the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. He then served as a senior strategic analyst with the Office of National Assessments, Australia's peak intelligence agency.

Rory's earlier work as a newspaper journalist was commended in the Walkley awards. He
maintains a close interest in India, and convenes unofficial dialogues between Australian and Indian policy thinkers.

 
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