We all remember the orange-red skies and falling ash in the summer of 2019 to 2020, resulting from the deadliest bushfires the nation has seen in a century. Now, two years on, a new documentary has us confronting the stories behind the infernos, beyond what dominated our newsfeeds.
In Burning, Amazon’s first original full-length documentary to be filmed in Australia, we learn that the abnormal ash and smoke, which spread from the country to several cities, covered 5.5 million square kilometres – the size of Europe.
Regional and coastal towns experienced the most catastrophic consequences of our warmest and driest season on record. Bushfires burned across nearly 24 million hectares, killing or injuring an estimated 300 billion animals, and affecting millions of people. Yet, as climate scientist Tim Flannery says in the 86-minute documentary: “the greatest tragedy of all is that we saw this coming”.
“Australia is a distillation of the world’s dilemma when it comes to climate change. As a flat and dry continent we are exquisitely vulnerable to climate change,” says Flannery in the film. He adds that, because of this, Australia will always feel the impacts first.
Directed by Emmy and Academy-Award winning Australian director Eva Orner (Chasing Asylum), Burning is told through the many perspectives of those who were affected by the Black Summer fires. There are stories of re-lived trauma described by local victims from Cobargo in NSW and Mallacoota in Victoria – among the worst towns hit; ones from teenage activist Daisy Jeffrey; and ecologists and experts including former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins. Each interviewee presents an uncomfortable truth that this is only the beginning.
Between first-hand accounts, expert explanations and never-before-seen footage of the raging fires, the documentary intersperses media excerpts and snippets from politicians that signal a circulation of misinformation around climate change, with a number of vested parties unwilling to support or take action.
“From its inception, Australia has always been heavily reliant on fossil fuels – we are now the world’s largest export of coal and gas and are constantly being told we are ‘nothing without it’,” says Flannery.
Burning doesn’t deny that bushfires are a constant in Australia, but it’s the consistent severity that is the documentary’s unnerving focus. Rare and mythical explosive fires that are so powerful they create their own weather systems should only happen every few decades. However, Mullins says he “saw 10 of those fires that summer”.
Flannery adds, “we are on the edge of the tipping point,” and argues that Australia must urgently look to other resources to stop the Earth from heating up past 1.5 degrees, which would have a dire effect on life.
Burning covers a lot of ground – and it’s also a documentary that should be taken seriously worldwide.
Orner succeeds in this juggling act of concisely relaying individual perspectives while keeping the viewer engaged. While it is great to hear from Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe, the documentary would have benefited from more Aboriginal perspectives – Elders and community leaders can teach a lot about how to care for the land in the way First Nations people have for millennia.
It hits home that some of the oldest forests in the world, unchanged for tens of millions of years, were lost in one bushfire season. Similarly to the 2020 documentary David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, this film will rouse appreciation for the land we live on. It also encourages the viewer to be informed and engaged in the conversation, and join the urgent climate movement to push for net-zero emissions as soon as possible.
Burning screened in Glasgow at the UN Climate Change Summit (COP26). Stream it on Amazon Prime from Friday November 26.