They Called Him Mr B – A Documentary Movie Proposal

Mr B – Sir Brian Bell CSM, KBE, CStJ

Mr B – Sir Brian Bell CSM, KBE, CStJ

1954. A young pharmacy graduate arrives in Port Moresby by flying boat. He hails from the little Queensland country town of Chinchilla, Melon Capital of Australia and inspiration for the Mad Max movies. Not long afterwards, he goes into business for himself. His name is Brian Bell.

2010. Sir Brian Bell CSM, KBE, CStJ is honoured with a state funeral. The church is packed far beyond capacity. Thousands line the streets to the distant, fire-blackened cemetery. Many cry their hearts out as if mourning for a father or a brother.

Obituaries for the man known throughout Papua New Guinea as Mr B hailed him as statesman, nation-builder and PNG’s biggest philanthropist. Yet he remains almost entirely unknown in the land of his birth, a mystery who should be an inspiration.

What was his background? How did he become so well-beloved? Why did three nations – Papua New Guinea, Norway and Sweden – bestow knighthoods and royal honours on this humble man with the frayed shirt collars and cuffs?

I hardly knew my uncle, Mr B, my only memory him wearing a lava-lava while scoffing watermelon one long, hot summer in Chinchilla. Then, early August 2010, I arrive in Port Moresby to a revelation.

Above: Video slideshow of funeral of Mr B – Sir Brian Bell CSM, KBE, CStJ – in Port Moresby

Philanthropy – The Bigger Picture

Australia has more millionaires than ever – an article in The Age estimates there were 302,000 of them holding US$900 billion, 15.5% of the nation’s wealth, at the end of 2012. The number of multimillionaires, defined as those with more than US$30million each, was estimated at 2,740 in 2012.

Despite these stratospheric earnings, very few Australian millionaires, multimillionaires and billionaires appear to be redistributing their wealth through philanthropy. That is a habit of the rich in other countries that has yet to fully establish itself here.

Chuck Feeney, whose US foundation Atlantic Philanthropies inspired Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to give their own personal fortunes away, was declared Australia’s greatest philanthropist in an ABC Lateline program in 2011.

“I feel confident that Australians will wake up to the opportunity and when they wake up, they’ll give,” said Mr Feeney on the topic of Australia’s wealthy following his philanthropic example. Keith Whelan, The Grants Guy, recently observed that has yet to occur in significant numbers.

Mr B – An Example to Inspire

Brian Bell, right, with older brother Harold Bell, left.

Brian Bell, right, with older brother Harold Bell, left.

I believe that the tale of Mr B is important for two reasons. It is a classic rags-to-riches success story and it is an example of focussing on the greater good.

Mr B contributed to the common wealth of his adopted homeland by building an importing, manufacturing, distribution, wholesale and retail infrastructure. He contributed more directly through his philanthropy, network of charitable organisations and patronage of often lifesaving public services. He mixed with prime ministers and royalty, made friends with senior leaders in China and was known and loved by the people of PNG.

None of this nor his many achievements were hinted at by his boyhood in a remote Depression-struck farm. How many other Australians of any background have set such an example as Mr B? How many will be marked in their passing by crying in the streets?

They Called Him Mr B – A Journey of Discovery

The documentary film They Called Him Mr B will be a very personal journey of discovery about a remarkable man, his public works, his example to others and the legacy he has left behind.

When I was preparing to go to Port Moresby in late 2010 to represent my side of the family at the funeral of Mr B, I knew little more about my uncle than that he had owned a shop. As the obituaries began appearing I learned that Uncle Brian had been far more than simply a shopkeeper.

What I was told about my uncle on arrival came as a shock. His achievements and dedication to the people of his adopted homeland caused me to question everything I knew about him and the extended family I lost contact with during a faraway adolescence. Uncle Brian was the role model I long searched for but never found, an inspiration for me and for all of Australia.

This film is the opportunity to find out more, to dig deep and to truly understand by asking questions such as:

  • How did a young man from a farm in the middle of nowhere come to help build a nation?
  • What was the vision that caused him to leave Australia for a life amongst strangers?
  • Where did the values he lived by come from?
  • What beliefs and experiences fundamentally shaped him?
  • What part did his birth family and future families play?
  • How did he successfully combine commerce with philanthropy?
  • What lessons can be learned from his example?

They Called Him Mr B will be a warts-and-all investigation into a life through looking at the results of that life, interviewing the people whose lives he changed forever, experiencing the places in which he lived and worked, studying the legacies he created and asking why so many mourned him so deeply upon his passing.

As I go through the process of learning and understanding while producing, directing and shooting this film I and my viewers may, perhaps, come out of the experience of watching it a little kinder, a little more generous and a little more like Mr B.