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Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review

Burning, 2021.

Directed by Eva Orner.



Follows the deadly Australian bushfires of 2019-2020, known as the “Black Summer.” Burning is an exploration of what happened as told from the perspective of victims of the fires, activists, and scientists.


One of the year’s most unnerving horror films hasn’t got a single ghost or masked killer in sight. Eva Orner’s (Chasing Asylum) documentary Burning painstakingly chronicles Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season – better known as the Black Summer – and the stark warning it provided for a global community blinkered to the full impact of climate change.

It’s no secret to anyone with their eyes open that the world is currently held firmly in the grip of a climate emergency, and with Australia’s flat topography making it uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of climate change – namely, forest fires – it serves as a horrifying test case for the rest of the globe.

As firefighter and former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue Greg Mullins points out, bushfires are a way of life in Australia, though having seen the fires first-hand since his youth in the 1970s, he has been able to observe how aggressively they’ve increased in potency over five decades. With record-breaking levels of heat and dryness due to global warming, it was just a matter of time before a cataclysmic fire of unimaginable scope arrived.

And that it certainly did, with the Black Summer burning 21% of Australia’s forests, killing or harming 3 billion animals, and destroying 3,000 homes. It’s an unprecedented level of destruction, and Orner pulls no punches by including voluminous apocalyptic footage of the fire’s rampage; animals desperately fleeing from the flames, the sky turning black due to the soot, and the fires even creating violent pyro-convective storms which only sparked more fires.


If this all seems too otherworldly, interviews with those who fled the fires lend heartbreaking human context. One woman can no longer bear the sensation of wind because it reminds her of the fires, a young man is stricken with PTSD, a pregnant woman ended up with an ashen placenta and ill baby, and so many who lost their homes also lost irreplaceable sentimental items, such as the only photos and mementos of departed loved ones.

Tim Flannery, a scientist who lost his home in a previous fire, flatly says that humanity is “sleepwalking into catastrophe,” and Orner’s doc foregrounds the concerted effort by right-wing governments around the globe to discredit science.

In Australia’s case, PM Scott Morrison has theatrically championed the use of fossil fuels while dismissing the worth of electric cars, expressing his disdain for activists, and famously holidaying in Hawaii during the Black Summer. Married to this is the far-right media’s prerogative to label climate activists as “alarmists” and “anarchists,” claiming that the forest fires are caused not by climate change but arson.

Enter Daisy Jeffrey, a teenage climate activist who considers it tragic that she’s even forced to make a stand, taking time away from studying and being a teenager to bang the drum for a cause the politicians aren’t. She doesn’t much care for anyone who calls her and those like her the hope of the future, but they’re probably right.

If the Black Summer’s mass destruction could’ve perhaps crowbarred open a significant dialogue in Australia about climate change, that was near-immediately derailed by the pandemic, as all resources were diverted to tackle that issue. But it’s dumbfounding that, in that case, Morrison’s government actually listened to the science, because refusing to do so presented such a grotesque threat to the ever-precious national economy.


And yet, talks of a green recovery out of the COVID recession were quickly swatted away in place of the usual talking points about investing in gas. Even in light of the scars left by the Black Summer, there’s still debate, disbelief, and misinformation about climate change, causing one to ponder quite how bad things have to get before political leanings aren’t a forefront concern of the decision-making process.

Beyond Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes’ ambitious $22 billion plan to build a solar farm which can export the country’s renewable energy to Singapore, there’s the perhaps more practical need for government leadership to steer all interests in the right direction, to ensure emissions are stabilised before Earth reaches a projected dangerous temperature threshold in 2050.

Australia may be the most extreme case of global warming in action the world has ever seen, but the film’s passionate interviewees compellingly argue that we’re liable to see similar results across the rest of the globe, what with the situation in the United States already becoming increasingly dire.

It’s all thoroughly scary, but at least Orner’s doc isn’t entirely devoid of hope, positing how humanity can inch away from the fast-approaching tipping point, but only if those in positions of power will listen and act accordingly.

Eva Orner’s urgent, terrifying account of Australia’s Black Summer catastrophe provides a grim warning of global warming’s future impact, if also outlining how the world can prevent further damage.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.


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