David Bradbury tackles Anzac Day and the Frontier Wars

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Entertainment editor John Turnbull talks to documentary film maker David Bradbury about the real history of ANZAC Day, the ongoing government failure to recognise Indigenous massacres and The Crater, the real story of Vietnam veteran Brian Cleaver.

DAVID BRADBURY was nominated for an Academy Award for his first film, the 1981 Vietnam War documentary Frontline. Since then, he has tackled topics as challenging and diverse as the anti-nuclear movement (A Hard Rain), military use of depleted uranium (Blowin in the Wind) and overdevelopment of hippie havens (The Battle for Byron).

Bradbury is a highly respected director who has fought tirelessly to shine light on issues the mainstream media prefers to ignore, but his latest effort might be the most controversial yet. Waging Peace tackles Australia's Frontier Wars, the series of massacres of Indigenous men, women and children by white settlers in the first hundred years of white settlement. The film also addresses the ongoing denial of history by many in government, the rise of the Australian Peace Movement and their anti-ANZAC day parade.

Frontier Wars is a 17 minute cutdown of Waging Peace, focusing on ANZAC Day and the efforts of the Australian Peace Movement to tell an honest version of the ANZAC myth, focusing on lamentation rather than celebration. The fact that most of the Australian population don’t know about the Frontier Wars is telling — school children can quote chapter and verse of the Gallipoli landing but know nothing about the massacre of thousands of Indigenous Australians.

I speak to David about how he first learnt of the Frontier Wars:

I guess I was fortunate enough to stumble into Aboriginal land rights when I was at the ANU studying history and politics back in 1972. I was a white boy with a conservative upbringing, and I gradually became aware of the issue of Aboriginal rights and the realities of growing up Indigenous in Australia. Bear in mind that 1972 was five years after the referendum that recognised Indigenous people as being equal citizens to whites and were given the vote. So for the last forty-odd years, I’ve followed the progress of aboriginal moves for equality, sovereignty and respect.

Bradbury continues:

I’ve made films about Aboriginal issues like Jabiluka, the uranium mine protest actions up in Kakadu, and the situation of the people in Northern Queensland who were moved off their land at Marpoon on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula to make way for a bauxite mine that was never actually built. That was a tragedy, among many other tragedies. Alcohol and dispossession are a key part of the problem, and leads to Aboriginal people killing themselves at ten times the rate of white people.

David mentions that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of old Parliament House in Canberra was key in his growing awareness of Indigneous issues. Waging Peace features a smoking ceremony at the Tent Embassy, which is the longest running protest in Australia. 

I ask David if he felt the protest was still effective after so long:

I think that’s a good question. I’d say that most people who go to Old Parliament House basically turn a blind eye to it. In white sort of terms, it’s a bit of an eyesore. You’ve got this old heritage building where the founding fathers carried out the business of Parliament, and now you’ve got these blackfellas and their campfires and their tepee, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

But most whites don’t know the hardships faced by the people holding out their hands and begging for spare change. These people are often the children of stolen generation parents who were wrenched from their mothers arms, leading to desperation and despair, in turn leading to alcohol abuse and mental health issues.

One of the issues addressed in Waging Peace is the heroic narrative that has been built around the ANZAC legend.

I ask David how he expected people to react to the revelation that much of what they believed to be history was propaganda:

I think some people will close the shutters and not want to hear the message. Some people will always believe that Aboriginal people are welfare bludgers who burn their furniture and that the ANZAC soldiers were brave heroes rather than scared young men sent to their deaths because the British command couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

Changing people's pre-conceived notions takes time, says Bradbury:

You don’t change people’s perception of history overnight, it can often takes decades.

I think it’s deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche that we need to protect ourselves from threats from the North, we fear an invasion from Asia or Indonesia. In the same way we recognise that we stole the land from the Aboriginal people, we recognise that the land could be stolen from us just as easily.

Bradbury speaks about the arrival of white colonists and their impact on the Indigenous population:

Our forefathers colonised this country at the expense of Aboriginal people who were murdered and massacred in guerrilla wars and ambushes. Murdered so the white people could penetrate from the west and the east to set out pastoral leasings, or because one of them threw a spear through a sheep for food and got hunted down by the local constabulary and killed. Something like 30,000 to 60,000 Aboriginal people were murdered in the first 50 years of white settlement, or invasion — whatever you prefer to call it.

I acknowledge that these Indigenous massacres took place the same way I acknowledge that the First World War took place. I think the Second World War was necessary to stop the rise of fascism and the Nazis, along with the Japanese with their sights set on taking Australia.

From studying history I think I’ve learned that sometimes wars need to be fought, and sometimes wars aren’t fought in the best interests of any of the people on the ground. The Crater is a good example of this…     

At this point David passed me over to Brian Cleaver — former surfer, Vietnam veteran and subject of David’s documentary The Crater.

The Crater is based on a grave site. In the crater we buried 42 North Vietnamese soldiers who were killed in battle. It was some years later that the North Vietnamese secretary of the local council and I got together and realized that these 42 men were listed officially as missing in action. He asked for my assistance in trying to locate these men and I spent 12 years searching for them. 

I did find one, but I found no indication of the other 41. They’re there somewhere, so that remains a sacred site. The one soldier that we did find, we didn’t know his name, but we buried him in a local cemetery with the details of how and where he died, so any of the relatives of the 42 men who were buried in the crater can visit the grave and pay their respects.

The Crater screens on the ABC on April 23rd at 9.30PM. Waging Peace is screening in select locations — check David Bradbury’s website for the latest details.

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