Veteran Australian documaker David Bradbury produces one of his most engaging works with “My Asian Heart,” a portrait of renowned Bangkok-based photojournalist Philip Blenkinsop. Following his fearless subject into Asian hotspots, including the 2006 Kathmandu riots, Bradbury shows how long-term exposure to violence has influenced Blenkinsop’s work as an exhibited artist. Ideal fare for fests and pubcasters, the docu’s 52-minute version is scheduled to air on Oz network SBS in late 2009.
Having covered political and environmental issues for the better part of 30 years, Bradbury delivers a film that shares some common ground with his Oscar-nominated 1980 debut, “Frontline,” a profile of Vietnam War cameraman Neil Davis. Like Davis, Blenkinsop believes the only way to capture the emotion of conflict is to stand right alongside the combatants and press the shutter button, even at great personal risk.
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A likable and intriguing figure who refuses to use digital cameras and shoots only in black-and-white, Blenkinsop is first seen in Kathmandu during a savage crackdown on protestors calling for the abdication of monarch Gyanendra Shah. Bagging the kind of footage many documakers dream of, Bradbury films a police officer being reduced to tears after Blenkinsop berates him for beating up children.
Blenkinsop is clearly impassioned about exposing injustice and keeping forgotten issues alive, and his greatest cause is the Hmong people in Laos, a group that has suffered persecution for its role in the Vietnam War and the nation’s 1953-75 “Secret War.” Over wrenching stills of diseased and sickeningly wounded Hmong — many of them now dead — Blenkinsop describes the frustration of personally taking images and stories of their plight to Washington and failing to achieve any meaningful progress.
Dynamic coverage of Blenkinsop’s field work is nicely balanced with quieter moments in which he prepares for an exhibition of his photo art in Lianzhou, a small town in southern China. Many of his striking creations feature handwritten notes expanding the narratives of people and places represented in stills. On some frames, he daubs real blood onto selected parts of the image.
Not so serious that he can’t find humor in the life he’s led since quitting a steady job in Australia in 1989, Blenkinsop is also an articulate commentator on newsgathering in the age of instant communication, and why stories run “hot” or, like the Hmong, remain largely in the cold.
Bradbury’s intuitive camera doesn’t miss a thing, and Andrew Arestides’ precise editing maintains a brisk pace without feeling rushed. All other technical aspects are first-rate.