Iconic activist filmmaker David Bradbury on telling people’s stories

May 31, 2018
David Bradbury

David Bradbury is an iconic left-wing filmmaker who has been at the forefront of telling the stories of people fighting against injustice and oppression for the past four decades.

I first encountered Bradbury when we were both filming the Lizards Revenge anti-uranium dump festival and protest outside Roxby Downs in the South Australian desert in 2012.

We reminisced fondly on that protest when we had a chat after a screening of his latest documentary, America & Me, in Parramatta.

He told me he still has all the footage from the Lizards Revenge but cannot get the funds to edit it into a documentary.

Every year, he said, it is getting harder to finance films.

It was this struggle that set Bradbury off on a journey that led to America & Me. The two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker went to the US in August 2015 hoping to raise money after struggling to get a cent from the ABC and SBS.

But every door he knocked on was shut.

What he did see while travelling across the US shocked him — thousands of homeless people across a country that spends billions each year on its war machine.

This led Bradbury to make America & Me. It is one of his most personal films, with Bradbury travelling across the US meeting war veterans, people struggling with homelessness, victims of the for-profit prison system and activists on the frontline against the tar sands pipeline.

Watching the film, I wondered how he managed to find and talk to such a diverse range of people on the street.

He recounted one story of meeting Vietnam veteran David Charles: “I basically wandered the streets with my camera ready to go — I’d been staking out the social security office with my camera getting a few shots, I saw this well-dressed guy with dreadlocks being hassled by police.”

Bradbury started filming the altercation. “Then I filmed an interview with him afterwards.”

Charles recounted his time in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) when Communists were taking over, and it was his job to say who could be taken offshore and who couldn’t — this created lots of stress for him, aged only 17, telling families they had to stay.

“I approach my filmmaking as a one-man band always having a camera on,” Bradbury said. “I let the characters speak and give the audience an emotional journey. A film works best showing raw emotion, hurt, being let down.

“All my sequences have a raw energy. I’m always hunting for a quintessential moment that tells it all.”

America & Me is full of stories of people suffering from the US war machine — from activists facing down military vehicles at Standing Rock to a woman who was tortured by US agents in Chile. It is a tapestry of the oppressed — and of those fighting back during US President Donald Trump’s election campaign.

The driving force, and glue that really holds this film together, is Bradbury himself.

It is almost a biopic of his journey of filmmaking from the Vietnam War to revolutionary struggles in Latin America and protests outside military bases, including Pine Gap in Australia.

Bradbury has had a fascinating filmmaking journey, coming out of the ABC journalist scene in the 1970s. In those days there were internships available, financing for documentaries and people to act as mentors. He laments: “It’s a shame it does not exist anymore.”

This led to his first documentaries — Frontline in 1979 about war cameraperson Neil Davis and Public Enemy Number One in 1981 about left-wing journalist Wilfred Burchett.

“I stumbled into Neil Davis and then met Wilfred Burchett and that was an eye opener for me after all the arrogant inner-city journalists I’d met.

“I learnt from Neil Davis that you always have to think like a news camera[person]. [Frontline] was a mentoring project, especially preparing for going into war.”

This included talking with Davis about how he escaped death by an inch in Saigon when a bullet went through his cheek and missed his brain.

Davis would die from shrapnel in 1985 when filming a coup in Thailand.

These lessons came to a head a few years later in Indonesian-occupied West Papua where Bradbury smuggled himself in, got malaria and “had to chew on a piece of sugar cane to keep energy alive before being deported”.

Frontline and Public Enemy Number One went on to have successful releases, with Frontline nominated for an Academy Award. Bradbury feels this was because it was different from a lot of other films on Vietnam War at the time. “It was about what made the journalists covering it tick, what goes into getting a clip for TV. It is more fascinating than watching a propaganda film.”

He would then “fall in love with the Third World of Latin American politics”. He made several documentaries about revolutionary movements in Latin America in the 1980s, including Nicaragua: No Pasaran (1984) and Academy Award-nominated Chile: Hasta Cuando? (1985).

Bradbury said he went to Nicaragua “as I always found the revolution wasn’t going to happen in Australia and that’s why I wanted to go places that revolution was going to happen — but I also found how revolution hurts poor people”.

He went to Chile in 1985 as Augusto Pinochet brutally repressed anyone who stood up against the neoliberal policies of Milton Friedman and Henry Kissinger being implemented.

Bradbury felt he had to tell the stories of those who resisted, saying: “It’s very scary and I do it because of my political activism and commitment to telling people’s stories who might not be able to get their voices heard — not because I’m an adrenaline junkie.”

He recounts seeing secret police reading newspapers upside down outside his apartment. One story I found fascinating was how they smuggled canisters of 16 millimetre film out of the country. “We got our film stock out in the suitcases of a couple of nuns leaving the country,” he recalls.

In recent years, he has made documentaries about the anti-war movement in Australia and abroad, including War on Trial (2016).

It is these stories, especially the footage from Chile, that make America & Me a fascinating story of US imperialism and political activism over the last four decades.

It is a story that is more pertinent than ever to Australia’s current political climate, with the Malcolm Turnbull government recently announcing Australia will be in the top 10 countries for arms exports.

It is a future Bradbury says he is “very concerned about. It was a link I made when running around [Melbourne] with anti-war activists and we went to a hundred locations that were [owned by] defence contractors. It was an eye-opener for me to see Lockheed Martin and other defence contractors everywhere.”

America & Me reflects another struggle, that of ensuring the survival of the activist documentary. Bradbury self-financed it and is struggling to find distributors or raise money for another film.

The style of the film, a collection of fleeting interviews, is a product of these financial limits.

“I’d love nothing more than to put a radio mic on a subject and follow them to the enth degree till I know I’ve got a film. I don’t have the money to do that anymore, so America & Me is a collection of fragments.”

He muses: “It would have been interesting if I’d had the budget to have someone following me and making a film of me in the US — I’d like to pass on what I’ve learnt”.

Bradbury is unsure if he can financially keep on making documentary films. “I do it still because I’m a political activist — but I find it a lot harder.”

He picked up the phone I was recording our conversation with and said: “Everyone’s got one of these and calls themselves a filmmaker and its up on YouTube for nothing — so why would people pay 20 bucks to see a film at the cinema?”

Bradbury has already begun to re-invent himself to continue making films. He is learning video editing “so I can start putting up some free video clips people have come to expect”.

He is even exploring drama, noting: “Not everyone can go from doco to feature and use a set of skills, I tried it a bit on [2015 docudrama] The Crater and had a chance to work with actors or non-actors.

“I really enjoyed that process after making documentaries for 30, 40 years. It was nice to work with actors and create drama and take what I know from making documentaries to make it look and feel real.

“That’s an area I want to get into — whether I will be able to get the money is another issue.”

As Bradbury enthusiastically talks about distributing America & Me, I get the strong feeling there are still a few more documentaries left in him.

“I consciously have put myself in the somewhat exhausting task of taking a film around, Tasmania, Canberra, Hobart, Sydney — to me it’s part of what goes with being an activist filmmaker.

“If you don’t do that, the film gets lost and you’re trying to extend your work as a political activist to encourage discussions. I’d love it if younger activists came.

“I like to connect to people and discuss neoliberalism, [the US] military industrial complex, whether we should be marching on parliament. We need to know about these things — like the Yemen bombings, Gaza.

“We need to have a commitment of where we stand and who we vote for in our pathetic elections.

“That’s why I make films, I thinks it’s more important to light one candle than to curse the darkness. One candle in a darkened room can create a lot of light on a situation, even if it’s for a brief moment.”

[Find out more about David Bradbury’s films at Frontlinefilms.com.au.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.