Review: Burning, directed by Eva Orner.
The word “crisis” comes from the Greek krinein, which means to decide. You’re stuck in the middle of a burning fire: you need to decide whether you are going to stay and perish; whether you are going to fight to put it out; or whether you are going to leave and let it burn.
Burning, Eva Orner’s new documentary, is about the climate crisis, and the Australian government’s decision to (metaphorically) let the fires burn.
It is quite explicit in its claims, and this makes it effective as a kind of cinematic essay. It carefully presents – via the words of interviewee Greg Mullins, former New South Wales fire commissioner – the history of bushfires in Australia.
While acknowledging, as the refrain goes, there have always been fires in Australia, the film presents evidence and analysis showing fires have massively worsened in recent years in frequency and severity in line with the forecasts of climate scientists regarding global warming.
Burning goes on to argue the 2019-2020 “Black Summer” bushfires, its ostensible subject, could have been headed off by a well-conceived response to global warming.
Past and present
Through a series of talking head interviews, Burning convincingly argues the severity of the devastation of the Black Summer bushfires is largely the fault of the Morrison government (and preceding conservative governments) in refusing to recognise climate change is real, and to enact policies addressing this.
Mullins’ commentary is joined by, among others, scientist Tim Flannery, young activist Daisy Jeffrey, writer Bruce Pascoe and residents affected by the bushfires who talk about the devastation their communities faced.
Through meticulously curated and assembled archival footage, we also hear from a list of the usual suspects: Tony Abbott, Malcolm Roberts, Barnaby Joyce, Alan Jones, and of course, Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The film is careful to tie this back to much earlier conservative discourse, with an interview with Alexander Downer in which he contests the reality of global warming.
It also – again, convincingly – demonstrates the role of the Murdoch media in propagating climate change denialism, with snippets from Sky News as recent as 2020 casting doubt on the reality of global warming.
The film is at pains to point out this is not only historical, but current – we see Morrison recently bagging out electric cars (“It’s not gonna tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.”) and proselytising about the future role of gas in Australia’s economy.
It’s a very well-made documentary, full of stunning images of Australian geography and flora and fauna – beautiful bokeh, slow tracking shots around leaves, etc – interspersed with dramatic meteorological charts, and some shocking footage of the bushfires burning across the country.
It is, I would suggest, the slickest film about climate change since An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and, like that film, its polish plays against it as a documentary film experience.
This is the annoying thing about the film: it’s so right at the level of content, but formally it falls short. Apart from a few select moments – harrowing images of charred animals, a koala trying to escape a fire, and a devastating interview with a young mother whose baby was born prematurely with a dying placenta because of smoke inhalation – the actual material centred on the bushfires is peculiarly uninvolving.
We watch interviews with Cobargo residents that, given the subject, seem surprisingly run of the mill.
It’s like the film mentions the smoke, but doesn’t capture its eerie apocalyptic quality. It mentions the intense heartbreak and brutality of the fires for towns like Cobargo, but doesn’t put us in the middle of it. It tells us things more than it makes us feel things, and this is seldom beneficial in the medium.
Even much of the footage captured by residents seems strangely contained by the film, with what surely was a surreal, infernal nightmare presented instead in a thoroughly digestible, middlebrow fashion.
Burning clearly examines climate change as a political weapon in Australia – and leaves no doubt about the connections between global warming and the recent bushfires. The message of the film is spot on, the logic of its argument faultless.
There are striking moments – footage of dead animals; listening to Daisy Jeffrey; Bruce Pascoe’s closing words about the stewardship of the land. And yet it doesn’t work as well as it could as a piece of cinema. It lacks the edge of eco docos like Wild Things (2020) partly because it’s too slick.
We want a hot and sweaty, intense film from within the belly of the bushfires and the horrors of Australian climate policy – instead we get a polished and well-mannered one.
It is a really good, well-made doco essay – primed for streaming (produced for Amazon, this is probably its primary intended medium, so it’s no surprise it isn’t very cinematic).
Its material is compelling - it certainly stokes our indignation - but it is unlikely to teach a climate change believer anything they don’t already know, and a sceptic won’t watch or listen to it anyway.
Burning is at Sydney Film Festival until Monday November 8 and will be streaming on Amazon Prime from November 26.
Ari Mattes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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