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March 9, 2021

Celebrating life and art in the shadow of death

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Filmmakers David Bradbury and Paul Cox at the Byron Bay International Film Festival. Photo Jeff Dawson

Peter Thompson

What is the meaning of life? Wrong question, like asking why does the sun come up. More productive to ask what can we do with the gift of life, having received it without asking for it?

This is addressed in David Bradbury’s powerful new film On Borrowed Time. It’s a loving tribute to David’s fellow filmmaker Paul Cox, who makes the frightening discovery in 2009 that he has incurable liver disease. David had already begun filming when Paul’s medical crisis deepened so it adds urgency to this engaging and enlightening portrait – one with a surprisingly happy twist.

David has the instincts and the intelligence of a master craftsman and On Borrowed Time is typically searching and inventive. As a veteran documentarian, David knows how to tell a story and he is as passionate as he was more than 30 years ago when Front Line, about Australian cameraman Neil Davis, earned the first of his two Academy Award nominations. As the old saying goes: life is an ocean and passion is the gale.

On Borrowed Time is an affirmation of the value of life for its own sake, of the preciousness of each moment. It has been the theme of many if not all of Paul’s 22 feature films. A Woman’s Tale (1991) has Sheila Florance raging against the dying of the light – she was herself dying of cancer, but won an AFI award as best actress for her role. The Remarkable Mr Kaye documented the life of Paul’s close friend Norman Kaye, who collaborated on 16 of his films before dying in 2007 with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Now it is Paul’s turn to confront his mortality and, not unexpectedly, On Borrowed Time is uplifting rather than morbid. It’s injected with David’s own vitality but it’s also a celebration of Paul’s artistic life, which has been unusually prolific and diverse. And his brush with death has brought the past and the present into even sharper focus. He’s more appreciative than ever of the basic human virtues and the wonder of our place in the universe.

I realise, watching On Borrowed Time, that Paul and David have much in common. Both rail against stupidity and selfishness as anyone who knows them and their work can attest. But they’re passionate lovers of life as well. And yet they’re very different characters.

When I talk to David after the screening at the Mullum Drill Hall on 22 June, I want to ask him how he got on with Paul. I suspect there were fireworks. But Paul could not have found a better biographer. David’s rambunctiousness is a nice antidote to Paul’s tendency to introspection and self-indulgence.

We’re fortunate in the northern rivers to have so many creatively inclined residents. Perhaps we should declare David one of our own Living Treasures. We’re also lucky that Noel Jeffries perseveres with Travelling Flicks and that he’s made a space for us to come together and share On Borrowed Time in the company of its remarkably accomplished creator.


David Bradbury’s On Borrowed Time is screening at Travelling Flicks on Friday 22 June at the Drill Hall Theatre in Mullumbimby at 7.30pm – dinner and desserts at 6.30pm – with the filmmaker in attendance, to be interviewed afterwards by Peter Thompson.


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