To say that 2020 was globally traumatic is an understatement of course, but in Australia, even as the year began two enormous traumas overlapped. Australia declared coronavirus a pandemic in late February, and by 19 March, closed its borders to non-citizens. But the terrifying bushfires that marked what is now known as Black Summer that began the year before as Spring began, in the country’s most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria these were only contained by early March. There was no real gap between the fires and the virus; in late December I bought my family expensive face masks to help us deal with the unbearable air pollution caused by the fires, and on a whim hit the button to upgrade to virus protection as well. My partner made fun of my paranoia, but it was, in retrospect, a wise idea. As I think about it now, it was ultimately one that is laden with the profoundly depressing reality that here – even for those of us in the cities lucky enough to still have homes and our lives, at least – there was no real time to process the scale of fires, their sheer enormity, and the political car crash that refused to acknowledge all the evidence that saw it coming.
Thankfully, Eve Orner (producer of Alex Gibney’s 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side and a celebrated documentary filmmaker in her own right) is here to help do that processing for us. In Australia, watching Burning is emotionally heavy work, as it is so strong a reminder of how close together the fires and the pandemic hit here. But – as the documentary makes clear over and over and over again throughout its runtime – this is not a film ‘about’ Australia per se, but rather one that uses the scale of the horrors here and the absolute refusal for those in power to act on the warnings a useful case study for the world regarding the reality of climate change. In recent years, terrifying bushfires have ravaged the US, the Amazon, and parts of Europe, just for starters. But something about the Australian example – the intersection of its colonial past, its mediascape (this is, after all, Rupert Murdoch’s homeland), and its long-mythologized political and economic dependence on fossil fuels, coal in particular – make it what Orner indicates more than once is both a warning and a lesson for the world as a whole.
With interview subjects including climate scientist, 2007 Australian of the Year, and (as he notes) Australia’s first and only Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery, Former Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins, and youth climate activist Daisy Jeffrey, Orner maps out a powerful chronology of how the Black Sunday fires and the often absurd ferality of climate change denialism in Australia are inescapably interlinked (a clip of current Prime Minister Scott Morrison sitting in parliament with a chunk of coal and mockingly telling the opposition ‘not to be scared’ is an unsettling an almost surreal viewing experience). Focusing on towns that took the brunt of the fires including Cobargo and Mallacoota and the people who survived there, Burning is an immersive, awful, essential watch, and the urgency with which Orner seeks to alert us of just how close we are to the edge of global disaster is intoxicating; climate change and its nightmarish effects are no longer a matter for debate, Orner argues. That reality is here already.