1944 - | Tasmania | Cinematographer
David Brill was sent to cover Tasmania’s catastrophic 1967 bushfires as a 22-year-old when the two senior ABC cameramen were on leave. His stunning footage was seen around the world and resulted in significant donations of aid for the victims. The story set him on a path towards covering almost every international conflict for nearly 50 years and becoming one of Australia’s best cinematographers with postings and assignments around the world, including the fall of Saigon and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. His work and his approach were notable for the empathy shown to victims.
“He was the best cameraman of his era. He has the great ability to capture what has happened in one take. A take that held longer and told you more. He was a strange combination of artist and action man”.
Mike Willesee was writing about David Brill after their assignments together for ABC television’s Four Corners in Vietnam in the early 1970s. Brill was 25 when he went there, having been appointed as the ABC’s first south-east Asia staff cameraman two years earlier, and then having the job snatched away because he’d got married and they wanted a single man.
He’d come to the ABC’s – and the world’s – attention in 1967 when, as a trainee, he’d filmed devastating bushfires in southern Tasmania. He still treasures a “Cameraman of the Month” award from the international news agency Visnews, which had picked up his footage.
Brill was already totally absorbed by pictures – Life magazine was his bible, and Four Corners became his textbook. A difficult and often lonely childhood – partial dyslexia left him exposed to bullying at school – could be pushed aside by dreams of telling stories through the camera’s lens.
Fellow Tasmanian Neil Davis encouraged him, and – as Willesee suggests – Brill’s brave, thoughtful and painstaking approach to camera work quickly established him as someone special. Reporters spoke of his work in glowing terms – though they were often left gasping by the inexhaustible energy which powered his approach to the job.
Filming war in all its aspects – courage, fear, horror, grief and desolation – was the daily diet in Vietnam and Cambodia, but for Brill the underlying theme was always the people. A little Vietnamese girl with her lower leg missing epitomised his approach – he was transfixed by her unwavering, unemotional stare as she waited to be fitted with a rudimentary prosthesis, finally relaxing into the smallest of smiles as she took her first steps in years. Brill captured it all – the pictures went “viral” and hearts, minds and bank accounts were opened.
A spell as a freelancer in Hong Kong included a memorable and exclusive visit to Hanoi as the Whitlam Government began extracting Australia from Vietnam – something he was able to put to good use when, in 1993, he was posted to Hanoi as ABC producer/cameraman.
That posting had been preceded by an on-again, off-again relationship with the perennially cash-strapped ABC which saw Brill based in Port Moresby for a time, in Uganda for Four Corners, back in Vietnam as Saigon fell, and despatched in 1976, on a skimpy contract, to New York.
That meant presidential election campaigns and more wars – the Falklands (covered from Argentina), and Central America – Grenada, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador - the ones that he says most nearly cost him his life.
During that period too, a battle with alcohol - a constant companion for many who’d cut their professional teeth in Vietnam and Cambodia – re-emerged. Colleagues like Jeff McMullen, Ian Macintosh, John Tulloh (who frequently put job opportunities in Brill’s way) did their best to help.
The problem, which we’d call PTSD now or recognise as an illness not a weakness, manifested itself in solitary sessions as Brill mulled over the day’s work and his own abilities. It wasn’t that he shunned company, more that some colleagues couldn’t cope easily with the intensity and high energy in Brill’s makeup. It took years of trying and several lapses before his determination to stop drinking carried him through.
Through all the tough times, Brill’s work continued unabated, as did his concern for – and empathy with – the victims of war, famine and natural disasters. So did his interest in the work of his “unsung heroes” - doctors, nurses and aid workers. Often working alone, he shot and produced documentaries for aid agencies to help generate the funds they needed.
In 1988, back in Australia, and still ready to tackle any assignment, even to his own financial disadvantage, he became the ABC’s first producer/cameraman in Moscow, as the Gorbachev reforms waxed and waned and the Soviet Union crumbled. With his customary nose for getting to the right place, he filmed the fall of the Berlin Wall from the East German side.
A year later, working for Derryn Hinch’s current affairs program, he talked himself onto a mission led by Labor MP Tom Uren to secure the release of Australian hostages held by Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War.
The pattern continued through the 90s and beyond – assignments for broadcasters to war zones including the Balkans and Somalia, interspersed with work for aid agencies in places such as Mozambique, Sudan, India, Myanmar and Cambodia, earning along the way the first of seven United Nations Peace Awards.
Through it all, David Brill’s trademark courtesy and gentlemanly manner with everyone he met shone through. He doesn’t swear, always dresses neatly and is unfailingly polite. For him, it’s a matter of treating people with respect – whatever their plight. “I deliberately carry the camera down by my side,” he says, “I’d never barge in with a camera and just start filming. I won’t do that because they’re human beings – we all are. And these are people in a dreadful situation.”
For ten years until 2016, viewers of SBS’s Dateline program were the beneficiaries of David Brill’s extraordinary skill and his compassionate view of the world and its people. As a video-journalist, he ranged far and wide for the program – Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Congo when access was almost impossible, New Zealand after the Christchurch earthquake, the Middle East and scores more places.
His subject matter was equally diverse, but with a growing emphasis on the environment, as well as famine and the consequences of the wars he’d covered for so long. Add to all that thoughtful profiles of people like veteran US reporter Helen Thomas, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Australian-born cartoonist Pat Oliphant and an hour-long documentary on a colleague from earlier years in Sydney, Hollywood cinematographer Dean Semler.
Old habits die hard – Brill still reads three newspapers every day and consumes as much radio and television news and current affairs as he can reach. He’s always preferred the job description of cinematographer to cameraman, but sees himself first and foremost as a storyteller, combining journalism, pictures and sound to help viewers understand what’s really going on.
As John Tulloh points out, no Australian has covered more great events of the past half-century, including wars, than David Brill. He is without parallel.
What’s next? Brill’s ambition is to see his work – preferably in documentary form – made available somewhere where young cinematographers, history students and Australians of all walks of life can learn something of how the world worked during his half-century behind a camera. That would be a fitting legacy.
Bob Kearsley has been a journalist for more than 60 years, working mainly in television news in Australia, the UK and Asia. He first met David Brill in Saigon in the early 70s, during the Vietnam War.
Portrait of Brill as a young ABC Hobart cameraman
1967 TV Week article celebrating Brill's work covering Tasmanian bushfires
David Brill (in black shirt in background) filming Gen Giap & Prime Minister Van Pham Dong, 1973. Courtesy of the Australians at War Film Archive
In Serbia, courtesy of David Brill
Brill trying to get evacuated four days before the fall of Saigon. Courtesy of ABC
Visnews press pass, courtesy of David Brill
David Brill with Gen Giap, 1996. Courtesy of the Australians at War Film Archive
The Man Who Saw Too Much, John Little, Hodder, 2002.
David Brill interview, Australians at War Film Archive, 2003