When Australian filmmaker Eva Orner returned to her home country after a period abroad, she was struck by the severity of the fires that were spreading there in what would later become known as the ‘Black Summer.’
After returning to the U.S., Orner was determined that telling the story of these fires, and using that as a way to talk about the global threat of climate change, had to be her next project. Her latest documentary, Burning, premieres on Prime Video on Nov. 26 and offers a first-hand, personal experience of the Australian bushfires and their impact, as well as the long history of government inaction and neglect in Australia that led to that point.
Burning is produced by Amazon Studios, Propagate and Dirty Films. Ben Silverman and Howard T. Owens serve as executive producers on the film.
The doc made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and was also screened at the COP26 conference on climate change in Glasgow earlier this fall. After what Orner saw as an underwhelming first week at the conference, she says the screening was a great platform for the film to make its European premiere, to provide context about Australia’s history on climate change issues.
“I thought it would be interesting as a global film, because there was so much outpouring and so much focus on Australia, globally. [The story about the fires] was on the cover of the New York Times for a couple of weeks, everyone was talking about it,” Orner says.
“It was a great platform to make a film about climate change as part of the story.”
Orner sat down for a conversation with Realscreen ahead of her film’s release on Prime Video.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
How did you go about constructing a film that while focusing on Australia, is global in scope?
Australia is ground zero for climate change. It’s one of the most vulnerable countries for climate change, and so we are like a litmus test of what is going to happen to the rest of the world. And it’s happening everywhere in different ways. Australia happens to be flat and dry, and harsh, so it’s happening to us in very specific ways, not unlike California.
Towards the end of the film, we reference the Amazonian fires and the Californian fires, the fires along the west coast of America, and fires burning in places they’ve never been before. So I think this is not a film about Australia. It’s a film about the planet and as we’ve just seen at the COP in Glasgow, our leadership globally is failing us with climate change. As one of the climate scientists in the film says, we’ve been sleepwalking into catastrophe and we’re very close to that catastrophe.
What kind of voices do you include in the film to make this a more personal story?
It’s funny, the longer I’m away from Australia – I’ve lived [in the U.S.] for over 15 years – I feel in a funny kind of way like I’m compelled to make films in Australia. I’ve now made two in the last eight years, and I feel like having grown up in Australia, you’re somewhat sheltered. You have subsidized government health care and education, and a really peaceful, lovely existence with a pretty high quality of life. And so the longer I’m away, the more I treasure and value what we have there, and I feel really compelled to protect it and to tell stories about careless governments endangering the future of those countries.
It is a character and story-based film, but there are quite a lot of characters. It’s not one character’s journey, it’s a little essayistic in style. We have renowned climate scientists, we have a career firefighter who became a politician [and is now] working as a fire commissioner who’s watched the effects of climate change over the last 30 years, and has been trying to raise the alarm for years, and his pleas to the government have fallen on deaf ears. In some ways he’s the most experienced because he’s been out in the field seeing the ravages and effects of climate change.
What kind of advice would you offer for other filmmakers about interviewing people after such recent, traumatic events?
I deal a lot with really difficult subjects, I’ve made a lot of films in war zones, and with refugees and abuse victims, so I’m somewhat experienced with that. I just find being really honest is the key, and being empathetic. Hopefully that’s not fake. For me, it’s real. I really tend to care about people who share their lives with me, and I usually stay in touch with them for years and years to come. I think this was an interesting film, because often people don’t want to talk and you have to spend a lot of time building relationships. I’m always very clear to stress I would never push anyone into doing anything they didn’t want to, I’m very respectful and I understand when people say no.
This film was interesting because every single person I spoke to wanted to talk and share their story. People had things to say. People were angry, concerned, worried, [and] upset, and I’ve never had such an open reception to people wanting to be in a film. It was also strange too, because I was doing it all remotely via Zoom up until the day we filmed with them, because of COVID. Once I went back to Australia, I was still talking to them all on Zoom for a long time, and usually you meet face to face. You spend time with people, you share a meal or go for a walk or something. This is all done virtually, but people still really want to share their stories and connect, and that said a lot to me about how important it was to tell the story and give them a voice.
In what ways were you able to convey the history and years of government neglect that’s part of this story, on film?
Australia has a pretty grim history with the fossil fuel industry, because we’re one of the largest exporters of fossil fuels, especially coal. So the governments successively have been very much in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry and the lobbyists. So that’s something that’s really difficult to break the cycle of in Australia, and I think that’s something that’s really holding us back.
We talk about this in the film. We could be a world leader in renewables, but it takes some time and planning, and that hasn’t been done. So instead we’re still building coal mines and not joining pledges that come out of COP when we’re in urgent dire straits globally with climate change. We’re still doing deals with fossil fuel companies and building new coal mines when we should be world leaders in renewables. I think that’s something that’s very clear in the film, and that comes from leaders who refuse to think about the future and refuse to stand up to industry.
How were you able to include hope and action for the future in this film, to balance with the alarming realities of climate change currently?
One of the things I was keen to do was break it down and make it simple. Not simplify it, but to make it clear and easy for people to understand. When people are scared of things or they say they’re confused or don’t know the facts, it’s really simple science. It’s a story we’ve known for 30 years. So we, in a non-didactic way, break down where we’re at and what that means. And a simple way to do that is [to say] we’re at 1.5 degrees of warming Celsius, if we get to two degrees that’s catastrophic. [Here's] why that is catastrophic and here’s what would happen.
Now we have passed most of our benchmarks, and all the reports that have come out are saying we’re not at a point we should be, so we have to have more stringent guidelines and requirements from governments. We have Tim Flannery, a very renowned climate scientist, saying we’re at the point now where it’s fantastic to do whatever you can as an individual, as a community, on state levels – get solar panels on your roof, get an electric car and do whatever you can – but we are at the absolute critical point and we need government to act fast.