David Brill is one of Australia’s most respected news and documentary cinematographers, renowned for his humanitarian approach to covering some of the most dangerous war zones and disasters. Mike Willesee, who worked with David Brill on Four Corners covering the Vietnam War in the 1970s, called him “the best cameraman of his era”, with the great ability to capture what was happening in one long take that told you more than the immediate action. Here David Brill recalls some of the memorable times during his Four Corners assignments in Vietnam.
Vietnam and me
By David Brill / 10 August 2021
I was always interested in social issues as a young man and I felt that through the ABC and Four Corners you could get a very important message out to the audience and explain, with serious journalism and good cinematography, what was really happening in Australia and the world – and try to help to change things for the better.
It wasn’t always easy
The government would get up in arms at some of the stories we did at 4Cs, and ABC management didn’t like what we were doing either – it was causing trouble for them in Canberra.
I remember at one stage, in the early 1970s, there were so many complaints about 4Cs that the Postmaster-General Alan Hulme, who was the minister responsible for the ABC in those days, wanted to cut back the Four Corners budget – not the ABC’s budget, but specifically Four Corners. It was outrageous, and it was leaked to the newspapers, so it didn’t go anywhere. The public I believe was very, very supportive of 4Cs.
We all battled on and did some great work.
Off to the Battlefields
The biggest story of the time was the war in Vietnam.
I went there about ten or twelve times during the war, mostly for Four Corners, working with journalists like Mike Willesee, John Penlington, Gordon Bick and Peter Couchman, and the wonderful sound recordist Rob Sloss who kept us all sane by doubling as unofficial production manager.
Four Corners popularity was such that when we went to the airport with our 12 or 13 pieces of camera gear, festooned with Four Corners stickers, people would stop and say to us, “Good on you people from the ABC”. We were like superstars, that was the respect in which the ABC was held, and I felt very, very proud to be part of the Four Corners team. And we looked the part, too – always very stylishly dressed, wearing sports jackets and silk ties, and sometimes even cravats!
Stop the War!
The Western press, based in the south, mainly covered the Americans who would happily provide helicopter and other transport. But after speaking with the legendary Tasmanian war cameraman Neil Davis, he arranged for Mike Willesee, Rob Sloss and myself to go out with the South Vietnamese army into a fire fight.
We took a South Vietnamese helicopter from Saigon out to the battlefield, landing somewhere in the Mekong Delta where a company of APC armoured tanks was lined up. They were waiting for us, the film crew, before engaging in battle with the Viet Cong, who were dug in nearby.
As not many Western journalists ever came out with the South Vietnamese, they were very proud that we turned up and couldn’t do enough for us.
We got on board one of the APCs and off we went into battle. The South Vietnamese were trying to get the Viet Cong right out of the area so they opened up with all their machine guns. And all of a sudden in the middle of this, my Éclair camera jammed.
“Stop, stop the battle!” I called out, more as a cameraman’s instinctive frustration than with any expectation of being taken seriously.
But suddenly the shooting stopped! The South Vietnamese were so honoured that we’d come out there, they didn’t want us to miss anything.
So, while the war stopped, I took the magazine off the camera in sweltering heat, in the middle of the paddy fields, while Mike spoke with the colonel to keep him on side.
The heat and humidity were always a hazard for the film cameras and even my state-of-the art Éclair couldn’t handle it. The film had snapped, and I had a battle of my own trying to save as much footage as I could. I don’t know what the soldiers thought as I put the magazine into the black changing bag that we used in those days, and with sweaty hands struggled to reload it, at the same time trying to conserve as much of the broken footage as I could by wrapping it in black paper from the film can.
Finally it was done, the camera loaded, and I said to Rob Sloss, “Let’s slate again, ready to go”. And with that, the battle started again.
The Human Cost
But for me, the most important coverage was not the battles, but the impact they had on the people. The suffering of civilians was palpable.
There was a little girl who I’ll never forget. We were at a makeshift hospital on the outskirts of Saigon filming people being fitted with very primitive artificial limbs.
While there, this child was brought into the hospital grounds on her grandmother’s back. She was about seven or eight and her parents had been killed in the war. She was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen, with these black eyes staring at the camera lens but with no emotion whatsoever.
She’d lost a leg in crossfire when she was three, and this was the first time she would be fitted with an artificial leg. And it just hit me like a ton of bricks: what had she done to deserve this?
With all the madness going on, to me that little sequence was more powerful in many ways than any combat filming I’ve done because it showed to me the stupidity of war and the fragility of life.
Without her leg, this innocent little girl had not been able to play with friends or do very much at all for herself. I like to think that her new prosthetic leg, primitive as it was, would have made a difference, but I’m not sure. Her eyes never did show any emotion.
Behind Enemy Lines
The great thing about Four Corners was that we were given the time, both in the field and on air, to show and explain stories thoughtfully and in detail. It was the only program on Australian television that was doing this type of work. Everyone else was doing news and short current affairs pieces.
In 1973 there was one side of the Vietnam War story that hadn’t been properly probed by the Western press.
It was then that reporter John Penlington and I managed to get into North Vietnam for Four Corners.
How this came about was one of those moments of good fortune. It was very hard to get into North Vietnam at the time, no Western media went there. But Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, in his first year of office, wanted to recognise North Vietnam, recognise China. John Penlington and I were both based in Hong Kong, when Lionel Bowen, Australia’s Postmaster-General, happened to be visiting, and we interviewed him at his hotel. He mentioned in passing that he’d just got the nod from the North Vietnamese to go to Hanoi. So we got very interested of course and said, “Can we come with you?”
Bowen thought it was a great idea and got in contact with Whitlam, who agreed it would be very good to have Four Corners go in there. So Lionel went to Hanoi, asked the officials if we could come, and in quick-smart time they said “yes”. But we would have to get our visas in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where the North Vietnamese had an embassy.
So off we went to the North Vietnamese embassy in Laos, and sat outside this beautiful old French villa drinking tea. The Ambassador came out and asked us a few questions about why we wanted to go to North Vietnam. This was not long after the Nixon bombing of Hanoi, trying to force North Vietnam back to peace talks, and we explained that we wanted to show their side of the conflict. After several hours they said we could go into North Vietnam for one hour, just to film Lionel Bowen leaving from the airport in Hanoi on his way home via Bangkok.
We were very disappointed to be given only one hour, and decided to go with minimal gear and just five rolls of film.
When we arrived in Hanoi we were put under the wing of the Russian plane we flew in on, with guards carrying AK-47s around us. Eventually we were taken into the terminal and did a quick interview with Lionel Bowen. But we wanted to stay longer, so we gave the film to Lionel to take back with him, then tried to convince the North Vietnamese to give us more time.
About an hour later this very sophisticated Vietnamese lady came along and said in beautiful English, “What can I do for you, my dears!” Her name was Madame Linquit and she was a senior government official. To cut a long story short, she organised for us to stay for another eight or nine days! We couldn’t believe it.
We were very limited in what we could film, for security reasons – no pan shots, no shots of military installations, and the like. So I shot as much as I could of the people going about their lives, the bombed hospital, other pictures that put a human face to the story. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a pretty big deal to get into North Vietnam at all.
We did have one major stroke of luck. After about three days, Madame Linquit came to us and said, “Would you like to film one of our delegations leaving for Moscow?”. Would we! So they took us to the airport in a big old Russian limousine and I was allowed to film the top people in the government heading to the plane – Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, the Defence Minister General Vo Nguyen Giap, their chief negotiator at the Paris peace talks Le Duc Tho, and the Secretary-General of the Communist Party Le Duan.
That’s me! – in Ho Chi Minh’s house
Years later, in 1995, I returned to Hanoi, doing volunteer film-making for CARE Australia, and I decided to also make a documentary. As part of this, I wanted to tell the story of Ho Chi Minh and so I went to his house, which was now a museum, hoping to film inside.
No go, said the officials, you can only film the outside and whatever you can see through the windows.
So I said to them, “Look, I was here in 1973 not long after Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Hanoi.” No you weren’t, they assured me, no one came here, you were Australian, you were against us.
Eventually they let me into another building next to the house, which held a lot of pictures and memorabilia. And there on the wall I saw this picture of the North Vietnam leaders at the airport, heading off for meetings in Moscow in 1973, with me and my Éclair camera right in the middle! “That’s me,” I said. They looked at the picture, back at me, back at the picture, and decided I was a comrade!
And that opened the door to the house, where I was able to film everything – the operation room where Ho Chi Minh ran his side of the war, his helmet, the red telephone to talk with commanders in the field, his bedroom with a single bed and books of Lenin, Marx and others.
That evening, back at my hotel, I got a call from reception saying someone from the government was there to see me. I went down and was presented with a very large print of the picture from 1973, a gift from the government officials at the museum.
The biggest impression on me of my visits, both in 1973 and now, was how kind the people were. Growing up in the Menzies-Holt era, I’d been told how horrible the North Vietnamese – the Communists – were. And it was not true, they were just like us.
It was a strong lesson not to believe propaganda about people and nations. And another reminder of why Four Corners was, and remains, such an important program to provide a balanced account of national and world events.
David Brill AM ACS covered the war in Vietnam through to the fall of Saigon. A documentary about this and his extensive portfolio of other work is currently in post-production. His cinematography has been recognised by numerous accolades and awards, and in 2018 he was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame.