A handful of productions have already been released examining Australia’s catastrophic black summer bushfire season of 2019-20, including an ABC TV special (Wild Australia: After the Fires), a feature-length documentary shown in cinemas (A Fire Inside) and a six-part scripted drama series (Fires). Each has merits, but shared among them is a “don’t mention the war” tendency to acknowledge the role of human-induced climate change indirectly, cursorily or not at all, as if embracing of that old, denialist mantra that “now is not the time to talk about climate change”.
In front of this backdrop comes director and Oscar-winning producer Eva Orner’s new exposé Burning – one of those rare documentaries that boils your blood and rattles your bones, leaving viewers longing for and (hopefully) demanding political change. Premiering in Australia at the Sydney film festival before its arrival on Amazon Prime Video on 26 November, it is the documentary Australia and – I think it is fair to say – the entire world deserves, exploring a complex subject with courage and clarity, taking seriously three simple but ever-salient words often heard in the climate protest movement: “Tell the truth.”
Although it is always an appropriate time to talk about the climate crisis, Burning arrives at a particularly timely moment, with Cop26 now under way. The Australian government is being justly berated for its rhetorical shift (not to be confused with real action) towards net zero emissions by 2050, following a similar shift in that direction by News Corp, a company whose actions – in the words of Ketan Joshi – “have caused irreversible harm to human life, on a scale no other media organisation on the planet could ever aspire to”.
When it comes to the climate crisis, as in Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, there’s a lot of blame to go around; a lot of fingerprints on the knife; a lot of people (howdy, Mathias!) who would probably like their past behaviour expunged from history. The point of Burning is not to level scores, but, again, to simply tell the truth, working from the vantage point that, as one interviewee puts it: “The greatest tragedy of this terrible black summer bushfire season was that we saw it coming.”
Part of the difficulty in making this kind of documentary, which juggles many topics worthy of entire productions themselves and enters a conversational space fraught with politics and vested interests, involves anticipating and addressing counter-arguments without giving them unnecessary oxygen or embracing bogus two-siderism.
This is presumably why Orner frontloads Burning with analysis of how there have always been fires in Australia, with this section of the film featuring the reflections of Greg Mullins, a former commissioner of Fire and Rescue New South Wales, who acknowledges that “fires in Australia are a constant” and “every year there are bushfires”. Mullins reminisces on how they used to be fought in the old days, including his first big fire in 1971, when people were beating out flames with tree branches, wet sacks and rakes.
This pre-empts an explanation of how anthropogenic climate change has led to increased frequency and severity of fires. Firefighters once assumed, explains Mullins, that a very damaging fire would occur in NSW about once a decade. But after 1994 it was clear, he says, that Australia was experiencing more and more of them, those old assumptions no longer applying. As the veteran journalist Marian Wilkinson puts it: “This is exactly what climate scientists have predicted for Australia – longer fire seasons, more intense fire seasons.” It is of course is a global issue, though Australia remains the film’s focus.
Burning recounts Scott Morrison famously bringing a piece of coal into question time in 2017, using parliament for what was, says Wilkinson again, “essentially a marketing presentation”. This event is significant in that it was one of the clearest (albeit far from the only) demonstrations of the extent to which our political leaders have become spokespeople for the fossil fuel industry, beholden to them. Underpinning the entire film in fact is an acknowledgement that the story of modern Australia is in many senses inseparable from the story of mining companies and the extraction of resources.
Another important area of discussion, touched on briefly but with impact, is the role the media – particularly conservative outlets – have played in fuelling climate misinformation and denialism. There are also more inspirational elements, such as the story of young climate striker Daisy Jeffrey, which Orner threads throughout, resisting the cliched “but wait, there’s hope!” message often crowbarred into a documentary’s final moments.
The director deftly balances many threads, and views the climate crisis through several lenses, including from environmental, political, social and moral perspectives. The pace is quick but not in a way that shortchanges important talking points. There are moments of tenderness – for instance a contemplation of trees being “arcs of time” – and there are also moments that make you want to shake your fists and scream “How could you?” at our politicians, Morrison especially.
This is a tremendously well-made film with a burning vitality: without question one of the most important Australian documentaries of the 21st century so far. One of its many messages is the point that now is the time to talk about the climate crisis. As it will be tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.