Thursday, 6 January 2011

My Asian Heart

My Asian Heart
Directed by David Bradbury

I saw this movie last month during Jogja's Festival Film Dokumenter but its worth reminding. Its director David Bradbury was one of the festival's special guests and also led 'master class' titled “Keep the camera rolling no matter what”, statement that actually provoked in me a little disagreement.

Bradbury is one of Australia's best known and most successful documentary filmmakers. He has won many international film festival prizes among which probably most prestigious and high profile are two Academy Award nominations: one for “Frontline”, which profiled war cameraman and journalist Neil Davis, who covered Vietnam war and unlike most western newsman preferred to go with Asian soldiers; and second for “Chile: Hasta cuando?”, about brutal military dictatorship of General Pinochet. Bradbury is generally renowned for documentaries about repression and revolution, he made his films in Nicaragua, Argentina, Cuba, Poland among others, he also follows nuclear debate and over years made four films on that issue.

In “My Asian Heart” this uncompromising Australian chronicler of war and struggle tells the story of another one who is trying to bring injustices to light by using his camera. Philip Blenkinsop is known in the business as a “concerned photographer” (photographer who understands his work as being socially engaged), going to extremes to expose human rights abuses and Asia’s lesser-known conflicts. It all began in 1989 when he quit his job as staff photographer in “The Australian” newspaper, sold his sport car, bought two Leica cameras and a one way ticket to Bangkok. In Asia he soon began to document life and death in all its forms. His level of commitment makes him one of the world's top war and conflict photographers, he's regularly commissioned by magazines such as New York Times, he also holds his own exhibitions and travels the world speaking at conferences on behalf of people fighting in forgotten wars and conflicts in remote parts of Asia, completely ignored by much of the world. Many of Blenkinsop’s images are stark and brutal. But it is Philip’s point that this is the real world we live in.

Philip Blenkinsop 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. He criticises the modern approach to conflict photography, which relies on long lenses and distance from the action. Without getting close it's hard to show what people are really experiencing, all the emotions in tense and dangerous situations.

“My Asian Heart” portrays some disturbing moments in recent Asian history, like the democracy riots in Nepal or the fate of the hunted community of Hmong people in Laos, for whom Vietnam War has never ended; yet it is much more a character study than a political film. This documentary uses minimal narration, it accompanies Blenkinsop into extreme situations and then lets him speak for himself. In Nepal he stops shooting bloody protests in order to help one of terribly wounded child protesters (the boy actually dies) and then berate the officer in charge, saying:

“Do you have children? Because how would you like your children beaten, their heads split open? How can you beat your own people – aren't you embarrassed? What are your children going to ask you? 'Father, what did you do? What did you do in this year 2006?' And you can say 'I managed to beat and kill a lot of children'. I hope you're proud.” This extraordinary moment when the riot policeman actually starts to cry is captured by Bradbury.

In “My Asian heart” Blenkinsop also shares his disdain for a daily news circle (“The news industry in general has a lot to answer for”) He believes that people are intelligent and have capacity of understanding things but media treat them like idiots.

Blenkinsop knows that giving people a voice by taking their photos is a huge responsibility. This responsibility extends to fighting for those he documents, not only photographing them. After risking his life to become the first Western photographer to record the misery of Hmong minority, abandoned by their American allies after the Vietnam war and hunted by the Laotian military (he won Amnesty International's Award for Best Photographer of the Year for those photos), he travelled to Washington to gather support for their plight. The politicians turned a deaf ear to his call for help, and he's still bitter that he got nowhere. He asks “What the point of having any news at all if people aren't actually going to listen to it? We left them (Hmong people) with such a hope. Maybe that was the cruelest thing to do”

This question: what is the point of reporting suffering when it doesn’t change anything, stuck in my mind. Much of the news industry has been reduced to pop culture and delivery speed. It's easy to feel frustration and disillusion of people like Blenkinsop, who look for the emotion of the events unfolding in the world around us. It must be hard when so much of the media seeks to dumb down the story, not wanting to challenge people out of their comfort zones. On the other hand today technology is everywhere and amount of images that we see everyday is sometimes overwhelming. With so much graphic footage one can find everywhere there is also a big risk of people being numbed to injustice and brutality. We read the story, see the photos get emotional for a moment and then turn the page to read something else. It seems like it is much harder today to really move people with something and guys like Philip can only hope to inform us about the world we live in and what we do with that knowledge is totally up to us.

Photos and info: and Yogyakarta's Festival Film Dokumenter materials

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