23 Nov 2021

Eva Orner's unflinching look at Australia's deadly Black Summer

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 23 November 2021

Known as the Black Summer, devastating bushfires ripped through Australia two years’ ago, but were particularly catastrophic in the south-east, following a record-breaking drought.

Eva Orner, is an Australian filmmaker known for tackling tough social and political subjects through her documentaries, including the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark SideBikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator; and Chasing Asylum.

Her new project is Burning, a documentary which looks at how the bushfires unfolded from the perspective of victims, scientists and activists.

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Photo: Supplied

Prior to the fires senior firefighters were warning the Coalition government led by Scott Morrison that a catastrophe was around the corner, she says.

Greg Mullins, the former fire chief in NSW, was particularly vocal.

“He was pretty alarmed by the conditions, six to eight months before the fires started. But he's been on a campaign for decades really trying to get government action on climate change. And also, we have Tim Flannery in the film who's a notable climate scientist globally, he’s Australian and he's also been fighting this fight for many decades.”

Mullins used to go and help firefighters in California but had to stop as the Australian fire season got longer and longer, she says.

“The scale of these fires is going to continue to worsen both in Australia and globally, as is the extreme unpredictable weather which we're seeing. And fires are going to be more frequent and more severe. It used to be once a decade or once every two decades, we had something like Ash Wednesday, which was the fires we had in Victoria when I was growing up. They're now saying it's going to happen at least once or twice a decade.”

Australia’s partisan politics also feature in the film.  

“The worst thing that happened was when the Abbott government got in. Prior to that the Rudd and Gillard government had to set up the Climate Commission.

"And on day one of the Abbott administration, rather than do anything that was urgent or pressing or really important, they decommissioned the climate commission, so they stopped it and that was just a classic Trumpian move.”

She believes a global observer may be surprised at how conservative Australian politics is.

“I think a lot of people still equate Australia with this sort of easy-going, fantastic living … not a conservative country.

“And I think it's really important to show the world that we have this incredibly conservative Trumpian government that's just wreaking havoc on the climate stage.

“And I think one of the good things that came out of COP over the last few weeks in Glasgow, is that Australia was really exposed, internationally, as villains in the world of climate science and climate change.”

A year before the fires took place firefighters were begging the government for more resources, she says.

“They were talking about this for over a year before the fires started, asking the government to put more resources into firefighting, that they needed more equipment that these fires were going to be unprecedented.

“They predicted exactly what was going to happen and it all fell on deaf ears, because we have a government that doesn't believe in certain science, they'll believe in some science, but not other science.

“And they've had a very, very, very firm refusal to act on climate change.”

Scott Morrison’s actions as the fires took hold were extraordinary, she says.

“What was happening with him was almost it was comical. And one of the journalists in the film, Marian Wilkinson, describes some of Scott Morrison's antics as comic book stuff.

"I mean, it's just juvenile and stupid. But one of the things he did was, his office, his press office would not confirm or deny his whereabouts.

“And journalists had been clearly tipped off that he was out of the country on a summer holiday, while the fires were absolutely at their crescendo.

A handout photo taken and received on December 31, 2019 from the State Government of Victoria shows a helicopter fighting a bushfire near Bairnsdale in Victoria's East Gippsland region.

Photo: AFP / State Government of Victoria

“Many Australians were suffering and so for several days, his office kept not confirming or denying his whereabouts.

"And then, of course, through social media he got busted, on holiday, people took photos of him in Hawaii on holiday.”

Morrison cut short his holiday and made some infamous media appearances shortly after, she says.

“He famously said, which is in the film, he said, it’s not like I was going to be on the front loader holding a hose, fighting fires.

“It just really captures his inability to show empathy to understand the situation and to show compassion to people who have lost homes, lost lives, and to the firefighters who spent months battling fires and they're mostly volunteers in Australia. It was just an extraordinary moment.”

The Murdoch dominated media in Australia also played a sinister role, Orner says.

“When the fires started they came out repeatedly, again and again, using as a talking point that the fires weren't a result of climate change, or the heat or the drought. They were a result of arsonists.

“And that was completely a lie. And there were so many fires in Australia, it made it seem as if there was like bands of 1000s of arsonists all over the country lighting fires.”

In fact, none were caused by arson, she says, dry lightning strikes ignited most of them.

“The Murdoch press were taken to account by publications like The New York Times but that story went completely everywhere around the world to a point, and we include this in the film, where Donald Trump Jr. is tweeting about the arsonists in Australia.”

One in four Australians were impacted by the fires of 2019 and 2020, she says.

“This was something nobody's ever seen. And you see it again and again in the film with people who have a lifetime's worth of experience living in fire-prone areas saying this was unprecedented. This was not normal.

“I definitely think it really rocked Australians to the core, the big question is going to be are they going to vote reflecting that? We’re gonna have an election coming up in the next three to six months, and everything has sort of been derailed because of Covid.”

 She sees the film as an Australian warning to the world.

“This is very much a warning film, a global warming warning film, to show people Australia's ground zero, this is going to be happening to you, if not now, very soon.”

Burning premieres this Friday on Amazon Prime.