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The unsung heroes, the devastated and the forgotten, filmmaker David Brill AM makes sure everyone’s story is seen, heard and remembered

In 2017 David Brill received an Order of Australia (AM) for his work as a filmmaker with some of Australia’s biggest broadcasters. Brill’s footage of major historic moments has been shared around the world.

Amidst the flames and panic, people terrified for their homes and lives, a young ABC filmmaker, David Brill, at times stopped filming and put down his camera to help people save their belongings from their homes that were quickly being engulfed by flames. It was 1967 and Southern Tasmania was alight.

David Brill had been sent to cover the bushfires, but he felt compelled to help the people who were losing everything. “I went inside to help bring out books, paintings and other things just to make myself feel a bit better, but when that story went around the world, I realised the power of television, the power of journalism, the power of good documentary filmmaking and that sent me on my way,” he says.

Due to the power of his footage, the film was syndicated worldwide and brought aid and expertise into Tasmania. “That’s when I realised how powerful it was, and I thought, you can really make a difference, doing this type of work and that’s what has really driven me up until today” he says.

Hailing from Tasmania, David, 72, prefers to do humanitarian stories, explaining that if you see people in difficult situations on the TV news, people can relate to it. He says it’s the people that he cares about when making films. It’s about getting the message out there. He remembers the refugee camps in Sudan (Darfur), some of the biggest in the world that no one could enter. “All these wonderful people that had lost everything, living in a refugee camp, and I promise you there’s nothing worse than a refugee camp,” he says. “People who had small farms and who had lost them during the civil war, then ended up in these refugee camps. These are very dignified people and they were stuck there and they had been forgotten about because the news moves on. There were thousands and thousands of people, so eventually I managed to get into the camps and made a documentary called, ‘The Faces of Darfur’ for SBS’s Dateline.” The program was subsequently shown on CNN four or five times around the world, expressing that these people should not be forgotten, and that we shouldn’t forget what is going on in other parts of the world.

The stories that David Brill has captured are a part of his life. He recalls each story, encounter and meeting in vivid detail, and although interviewed by phone, his sincerity echoes through the receiver. Brill was present during some of the most pivotal moments in history: the 1975 Fall of Saigon; the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall; the 1983 Australian victory of the America’s Cup (“that was a great moment, Australians defeating Americans at their own game,” he says); the fall of the Soviet Union and the war in the Baltics.

What has been the most inspirational for Brill are the people he has met and filmed, like the young Vietnamese girl who, during the Vietnam war had lost her leg. “I was on the outskirts of Saigon and this little girl was brought in to be fitted with an artificial leg – her leg was blown off when she was three or four in crossfire and she had no one to play with. Her parents had both been killed in the war and she had to be carried around on her grandmother’s back,” he says. “She only had one leg and when she was seven they were bringing her into this hospital and we happened to be there”. “She was the most beautiful child that I had ever seen. There was no expression on her face, but once they put this makeshift leg on her made from bits of old wood and she held onto the rails and started to walk, it was the first time in her life that she had her own independence and her face lit up a bit and it was very, very powerful and moving,” says Brill. “When that story went to air on Four Corners with everything else that we shot on that trip, people commented about that little girl: what are we doing in Vietnam, what a disastrous war. This little girl was this one example of thousands of people getting injured, killed in war. That and the Tasmanian bushfires were two of the most important stories I had done at that time”.

Brill cites Daniel Ellsberg as one of the great human beings that he has met, Ellsberg of course being the military analyst behind the Pentagon Papers that outed the Nixon administration as having sent more than half a million troops to Vietnam, to a war that Ellsberg believed was unwinnable. Ellsberg had secretly photocopied the report detailing military activity in Vietnam and later gave a copy to The New York Times. “He could have gone to jail for the rest of his life but by saying that there were more Americans being killed in the war than the Nixon administration was letting on, it helped to shorten the war by about three years, saving hundreds of lives by exposing the lie. He’s a real American hero,” says Brill.

“There are some great Australians doing wonderful work around the world – aid workers, nurses, doctors and others that we don’t hear much about and I think it’s my job to get their valuable work and caring acknowledged through the power of television”.

In 2017, Brill was acknowledged for his humanitarian work and received an Order of Australia (AM). Brill acknowledges that it is not just he who has done this work, for there are many cinematographers doing similar work as we speak. “I accepted the award not only for myself but also for my colleagues” he says.

Looking back on Brill’s career, he has covered every major conflict from the Fall of Saigon through to Iraq and Afghanistan. When he was 70, Brill was embedded with an American battalion in Afghanistan and he could see the same pattern happening as had happened in Vietnam all those years ago – the suffering and death of innocent people.

He looks back now and realises the momentous history that he has seen and covered over the last 50 years. What David Brill likes to do now is give talks to schools and universities about the history that he has witnessed and he hopes that we can learn from our mistakes.

David Brill has won 6 United Nations Peace Awards, a Special Award for his Fall of Saigon footage; he was accredited to the Australian Cinematographers Society in 2015 having been inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2008. David was a video journalist at SBS’s ‘Dateline’ programme from 2003 to 2014.