Debbie Kruger
Heading and photo of David Bradbury
Friday February 4 1994


In his latest film, documentary-maker David Bradbury has turned from the world's trouble spots to the plight of the whales. He talks to DEBBIE KRUGER

David Bradbury placates his restless son while speaking in a gentle but impassioned tones about the plight of the world’s great sea mammals, whose threatened extinction is addressed in his new film, The Last Whale.

It is three years since he escaped from Sydney and settled on the NSW far north coast, close to Byron Bay, where the Julian Rocks marine reserve plays host each winter to the migrations of the graceful humpback. “I haven’t even seen a whale in the wild,” Bradbury admits. “Not even at Julian Rocks. And that’s quite a revelation in itself. I sort of feel that whales and I are still to have our meeting, as it were.”

It is a paradox for the internationally acclaimed documentary filmmaker, who has lived his work to the point of placing himself in some of the world’s most dangerous political hot spots. From Frontline, his cinematic portrait of Vietnam cameraman Neil Davis, to Nicaragua No Pasaran, Chile: Hasta Cuando? and State of Shock, he has battled injustice with relentless integrity across the globe.

Such specialised subjects have attracted wider audiences and more critical approval than he might have expected but in the case of The Last Whale, which screens this weekend on the Nine Network, and around the world throughout this month, he has deliberately set out to make a film with broad mainstream appeal.

Unusually Bradbury did not initiate this project. Producer and environmentalist Wayne Young, whose credits include Crocodile Dundee and Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest had met Greenpeace honorary chairman and founder David McTaggart. Young and his son Scott, who co-produced The Last Whale, were moved by McTaggart’s concerns about the Japanese and Norwegian governments’ attempts to recommence commercial whaling in the Antarctic, and bought Bradbury in to direct the film they knew had to be made.

Bradbury was at a loose end, depressed after being thrown out of Timor and losing valuable film and tapes. “Wayne approached me and said, this is the situation that’s happening with the whale. I took his point that it symbolised a far greater sickness that faces all of us, and so it struck me as being a good one to go for.”

For the first time Bradbury was free of financial concerns during production, enjoying a bigger budget and production team than usual. The Last Whale incorporates a wealth of archival and wildlife footage, and sweeps across the world to expose the full extent of the Japanese Government’s Machiavellian tactics in manipulating the decisions of the International Whaling Commission.

There were inevitable compromises in directing a commercial documentary, for which Bradbury traveled to Dominica, St Lucia, Grenada and the Solomon Islands. These four countries have joined the IWC, with Japan picking up the bill (membership dues are about 15,000 pounds ($31,2620)), for no other reason than to vote against a proposed whale sanctuary in the Antarctic. They are receiving financial aid from Japan in return for their votes.

In these countries, Bradbury also encountered a plethora of injustices awaiting exposure. “One of the saddest aspects of the trip for me was the level of rape of those countries and how they’re in the firing line now for the continuation of that rape and pillage of their resources,” he says, listing half-a-dozen films in the making.

The Nine Network insisted on giving the film a glossier edge by having Olivia Newtown-John presenting, in her role as United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Environment. “It was a format that we did with Shoalwater Up For Grabs, which was taking a known personality — Peter Garrett in that instance — and this one to a lesser extent Olivia. I guess it was sort of a conscious effort to keep the network happy, at the same time getting the mums and dads who might like Olivia or relate to her, trying to touch as many bases as we could without compromising the integrity of the film.”

The “showbiz” element has been employed fully by the producers and the network, with Sam Neill narrating, songs by Newton-John, Midnight Oil, John Farnham and Yothu Yindi, and promotional campaign fronted by personalities including Greta Scacchi, Jack Thompson and Mandawuy Yunupingu.

But The Last Whale is never anything less than a David Bradbury film — passionate and accusatory. The predicament of the whales is illustrated in no uncertain terms. Despite a 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling since 1986, at least 15,000 whales have been slaughtered during that time by Japan and Norway in the name of “science”. Both countries are determined to overthrow the moratorium completely and prevent the haven being established. The sanctuary proposal is being voted on at an IWC meeting on Norfolk Island between February 21 and 25, and the ultimate decision on the reintroduction of commercial whaling will take place in Mexico at the end of May.

The whale issue is only part of a far broader crisis in the environmental arena. While The Last Whale does not get bogged down in theories about pollution, the ozone layer and destruction of rainforests, it does, in succinct, emotional style, put the whale issue in the appropriate context. “It’s saying the sort of stuff that we all know to be true, that there isn’t any vision on a world scale at all by any of our international leaders, and it comes back down to the people to scream a little, scream a lot in order to be able to start the turnaround that’s necessary,” says Bradbury.

On the strength of Shoalwater Up for Grabs, the Prime Minister called a year long halt to sandmining at Queensland’s Shoalwater Bay. Bradbury wants The Last Whale to inspire event more potent action, and a 0055 action line has been set up for viewers who wish to get involved.

Despite his inner turmoil over the state of the world, age and fatherhood have mellowed him. He no longer yearns for the danger of a Central American war zone, and Timor is on hold. Local issues, such as bulldozing at North Ocean Shores and the proposed Club Med development in Byron Bay, are equally as important. But everything is in perspective. “I know that I’m only one individual and I know that there are other individuals who think like I do, and I can only hope that with all the good people there are in the world that you’ve got fellow travellers, and I can try and do my best, which is to be a communicator and get those ideas out.”

An approach Bradbury will no doubt take in his planned move into drama later this year. Feature films are next on the agenda but the issues are likely to remain in the political domain. “I’ve gone as far as I think I can with the documentary form. But the energy and passion that goes into making a film isn’t something that you treat lightly. You have to have something to say. To consume so many other people’s energy and time you have to have a reason for doing it.”

Bradbury is attracted to the challenge of working with actors as opposed to directing a documentary, which mainly takes place in the editing room. Citing British director Mike Leigh’s work as inspirational, he is particularly interested in the workshop experience. “It allows something to take on a life of its own, which is often different to what you imagined at the first instance of conception.”

With four-year-old son Dylan amusing himself nearby, wielding a toy gun and firing cherubic looks of terrorism in our direction, there is an irony at play at which Bradbury can only smile sheepishly. “One thing I’ve learned since having children is that sometimes you can’t change it. You just have to go with it.”

But the fine line between flexibility and complacency will always be crucial to Bradbury’s ethos. “I wish that I could make films faster, have enough intellect to be able to make films at the rate it needs to be said, and communicate those ideas so that people could get their act together fast enough to try to turn it around in the time that we’ve got left to do it.”

The Last Whale screens on the Nine Network tomorrow at 7:30pm. The action/information hotline number is (0055) 60546.

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