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David Bradbury has earned a reputation for daring, even dangerous documentaries in trouble spots around the world and around Australia. When an ageing and idealistic Greek migrant to Australia commissioned him to make a film about Cuba today, Bradbury went, but knew that the workers’ paradise the revolution of 1959 had promised was still just a fantasy. Bradbury talks to Andrew L. Urban.

David Bradbury polishes off a plate of gnocchi with tomato sauce in a noisy, bus-infested Kent St in the Sydney CBD, ignored by the city slickers. Unrecognised as a late luncher, he’s certainly not unrecognised as a documentarian of note in Australia, a filmmaker whose eye sees through more than just the lens. The double Oscar nominee has panned the world’s more politically painful spots with his camera, from Nicaragua and Chile to Vietnam. And now Cuba. But this one is different.

"an ironic title"

Fond Memories of Cuba is an ironic title, and a slightly world weary Bradbury acknowledges that he was “already disillusioned before I went to Cuba this time.” Disillusioned by the failure of communist revolutions world over to deliver on their promise. Disillusioned by once feisty revolutionaries becoming bloated and self serving apparatchiks in the regimes that replaced bloated and self serving apparatchiks under a different label.

What makes his latest film different is its origins: Jim Mitsos is an 86 year old millionaire socialist who migrated to Australia from Greece many years ago. He has not lost ‘the faith’, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. He still believes that “the dream of a socialist paradise” lives on in Cuba where Jim has given away substantial portions of his fortune over the years. He commissioned filmmaker Bradbury to make a film in Cuba and return with evidence that the dream is still alive, or so Jim thought, for most Cubans.

Jim is now back in Greece in his native village, too ill and feeble to be aware of the film’s brutal revelations. “I wasn’t going there thinking it was a workers’ paradise,” says Bradbury, “as Jim would like to think.”

In fact, Bradbury wonders aloud whether he’ll now be attacked by socialists as a ‘counter revolutionary’ (he says the words in parenthesis with his fingers, alluding to the irony of the very idea), following the release of Fond Memories… “But I certainly didn’t set out to show the place up.”

Cubans, he says, are tired of the political situation and there is no outlet for their frustrations. To complicate matters, they’re all still loyal unto death, should anyone threaten their beloved country. What’s there to belove? Dirty streets, meager wages (average of US$10 - $15 per month), third world status and hunger - and a dictatorship that’s no better than the one it replaced. Typical. Animal Farm. 

But the film does more than undermine socialist propaganda; Bradbury is a terrific documentarian, and we sense the contradictions of Cuban society in its love of life in the face of the bitterness of life. And it’s as if this film signals a shift in Bradbury’s career, too. He has been “like a yo yo” on the subject of what impact he can have on the world as a documentarian. “I guess I believe I can, otherwise I wouldn’t be constantly bashing my head against a brick wall,” he says wryly. But his enthusiasm is also dampened by his perception that documentaries simply do not reach a mass market.

“So I’d like to move into classic movie making, using the dramatic structures of Hollywood to tell stories.” He’s started working on the first: a feature film about East Timor and the Dili massacres, told as a narrative about the young daughter of an Australian journalist who returns to East Timor, without a political bone in her body, on a commercial visit, only to have her eyes opened.

"the director’s cut"

While he works on that, Fond Memories begins its Australian release in Sydney, to be followed by a US non-theatrical season and an SBS television airing in early 2003 of the 52 minute version. Cinema audiences will see the director’s cut at 77 minutes. He spent three and half months shooting 120 hours of footage and three months editing the film. “It seemed criminal to just have a 52 minute version.”

Published July 11, 2002

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