Australia (MIFF 2022)
Director: Kasimir Burgess
Personal entwines with political as a young Tasmanian activist follows in the literal footsteps of his late father, who in the 1980s fought to save the pristine Franklin River wilderness.
When Tasmania’s Hydro-Electric Commission planned to build a dam on the Franklin River, the Wilderness Society mobilised to protect it, sparking a now-infamous, and ultimately victorious, campaign of blockades, protests, lawsuits and political wrangling – a campaign that was a key part of the development of the Australian Greens movement. Franklin recounts this seminal environmental protest through the eyes of Oliver Cassidy, who retraces the journey on the World Heritage–listed river taken some 40 years before by his late activist father.
Featuring former Greens leader Bob Brown, historian Aunty Patsy Cameron and entrepreneur Dick Smith, and narrated by Hugo Weaving, this formidable, MIFF Premiere Fund–supported film includes breathtaking shots of the waterway and its surrounds, enriched by never-before-seen 16mm footage. But the second long-form documentary from Accelerator Lab alumnus Kasimir Burgess (The Leunig Fragments, MIFF 2019; Fell, MIFF 2014) isn’t solely about advocacy and conservation; with Cassidy as wayfinder, the film, like its titular river, encourages history and intimacy, legacy and longing, to freely flow.
In his compelling environmentally-themed MIFF Premiere Fund-supported feature documentary Franklin, MIFF Accelerator Lab alumnus director Kasimir Burgess cannily mixes the personal with the political.
After dealing with one Australian legend in his previous documentary The Leunig Fragments, Burgess tackles another with Franklin. Poetic and powerful, this doco looks at an epochal moment in Australia’s recent history, when activists and protesters saved the World-Heritage listed Franklin River national park from being destroyed for a huge hydroelectric dam project in the early 1980s. It was an essential event of local environmental activism, and remains a key moment in White Australia’s often difficult and highly charged relationship with its natural environment. Franklin, however, is also a deeply personal film. Against a backdrop of glorious natural beauty, eighth-generation Tasmanian and environmentalist Oliver Cassidy embarks on a life-changing solo rafting trip down the beautiful yet remote Franklin River. Totally alone and enveloped by nature, Cassidy’s goal is to retrace his late father’s 14-day expedition to attend the blockade that saved the Franklin in the early 1980s. Franklin is a big, bold, vitally important story told through a singular and highly personal lens, and Kasimir Burgess (who also directed the acclaimed 2014 narrative feature Fell, along with a host of shorts) captures it beautifully.
What was the appeal of the project? “It had a personal story at its heart, which was the key into a broader historical piece which seemed very prescient and relevant to our world today. It was also one of those rare wins for activists.”
Did you have memories of the campaign around The Franklin River? What did you know about it before you began? “I was very young. I was like three or four years old when it was happening, but I do remember the stickers that were on the back of people’s cars and on mailboxes. And I also remember rally footage of people sneaking off seemingly to infinity at one of the big rallies that were put together. I subsequently found that news image from my memory as a child, and I used that in the film. It’s like a big river of humanity. It’s just one of those things that stays with you.”
The whole film must have been quite difficult to orchestrate, and to get the footage? Can you talk about that at all? “Yeah, it was. Luke Tscharke, our drone operator, and Benjamin Bryan, our cinematographer, and I worked pretty closely in planning how to store the equipment, and what kind of cases and underwater housings we could use. We had to have backup cameras. We just presumed that some of them would die, either through falling or getting submerged. We planned it as well as we could. Initially, we wanted to take small cameras, but we ended up with an LF Alexa studio camera, which provides a great image, but it’s not the easiest camera to navigate across rapids and cliffs. The logistics of it were pretty nightmarish.”
What kind of difficulties did you encounter? “We wanted to get an early morning shot of a waterfall. We wanted to fly over the top of the waterfall and reveal the landscape beneath. We ended up flying our drone into a fallen tree at the top and it crashed. We could see it. So we decided to scale this sheer cliff that was probably 50 meters high and very slippery. Halfway up, we were looking down and we were just barely holding onto twigs and the root systems of trees as we pulled ourselves up. We were just thinking, ‘What are we doing? Is this drone worth it?’ But it had a shot in it that we really wanted to retrieve. It captured the waterfall and the mist and the river snaking off into the distance. We weren’t sure if we could repeat that. That was the main motivation behind retrieving that particular drone.”
Did anything happen on the river itself? “We lost a raft as well. One of our rafts got sucked into a nasty notch and we lost barrels of food. We were actually on rations after that because a lot of our muesli and other things got soiled. We had to really stretch some of our other meals. It was a very real danger and a risk. Oliver damaged his knee on day one. It was made all the more dangerous because when you’re looking through a lens or a view finder, as I often was, then you’re less aware of the upcoming cliffs and branches that are overhanging. Thankfully, we had a very good team of river guides who were able to be our eyes when we were fixating on the shot.”
It must have been reassuring for Oliver, having you there? “A solo trip is a pretty crazy thing to undertake. I’m not sure how much you want the audience to think about the crew, so we tried to distance ourselves from Oliver as much as possible. We let him sleep away from us and to have long periods of the day where he’s experiencing nature and connecting, as he sought to do with his father’s spirit. He was communing with this very sacred place by himself. But of course, then you need the shot and you have to get right in there and disrupt that. You have to get amongst that kind of reverie, that daydream that he’s enduring.”
Was it all scripted before you went off to shoot? “No. There was the historical story, so we’re lucky in the sense that it has its own beginning, middle, and end, with all sorts of drama and twists and turns within that. But Oliver’s journey was really up for grabs. It’s like, ‘what’s going to happen here?’ And that was exciting too; we just didn’t know how he was going to react to the challenges, both the physical ones and the emotional ones. We adapted and improvised as we went. We just filmed what unfolded.”
But there was a script… “Yes, I certainly don’t want to undermine what the writers brought to it either. [Screenwriter] Claire Smith created a 20 page document, and there were options there for what could happen, and that was very useful. But you really just don’t know, so you end up shooting and writing in the edit. Hopefully we treated it pretty subtly and it flows. But that took quite a while, and we worked with the writers, Claire Smith and Natasha Pincus, to choose the best pieces from Oliver’s extensive diary from the trip as well. That was a big part of what the writers brought.”
What are you working on at the moment? Any new projects in the pipeline? “I’ve just finished a drama script that I’m very much looking forward to bringing to life next year. I don’t know how much I can talk about it, but I guess it still has the environment and nature as a central character. It feels important to me to explore the relationship that humanity has with the natural world. It’s pretty heartbreaking what has unfolded. To tell stories of people who would seek to protect that world feels like something of an obsession.”
Where did that come from? “Good question. Even with my short films, they’re often about disconnected and lonely characters who reconnect by forming a relationship with nature, or with an animal or with something from the natural world that is redeeming in their life. So you could trace it back to those stories, but as to why I’m interested in telling those stories, that might be for someone else to diagnose!”
It’s certainly a relevant theme…
“That’s right. It’s that theme of just constantly trying to reconnect. With everything being so comfortable and handy, you lose connection to fighting for your life or having to hunt or to reconnect to something more basic, which is often just survival. That’s why I enjoy watching Oliver on the river…he’s just getting through it. He’s just brought out of his head and into his body…on the river, that’s what you have to do.”