TIFF 2021: Burning Review

Eva Orner offers a portrait of a planet on fire

4 mins read

(Australia, 86 min.)
Dir. Eva Orner
By Rachel Ho


A lot has happened in the world since Australia was on fire. A global pandemic brought the world to a standstill, social justice movements occupied headlines, and protesters took to the streets for many different reasons. Burning serves as a reminder of Australia’s–really, the world’s–climate problem, whose origins may seem like a distant memory.

Director Eva Orner (Bikram: Yogi Guru Predator) tells the story of Australia’s Black Summer (2019-2020) when bushfires scorched  59 million acres of land causing countless wildlife to perish or be badly injured while clouds of smoke invaded city centres. Orner uses the traditional talking heads structure, interviewing activists young and old, and residents recalling their experiences. Interspersed throughout is archival footage shot during the summer including those from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as well as amateur video clips taken on mobile phones.

Orner balances being a preachy environmentalist film with pure storytelling. The factors and events leading up to the disastrous summer are chronologically documented, creating a compelling narrative. At its core though, Burning is about a country desperate for help before it goes up in flames.

Focus is given to teenage activist Daisy Jeffrey who represents the voice of Australia’s youth and future. Young people are often associated with idealism and naïveté, especially in the environmental space. Refreshingly, Jeffrey doesn’t deny her inexperience or her youth; rather she emphasizes them. Jeffrey agrees that she is a student who has much to learn and chastises the generations before her for forcing her into an activism she’d rather not have to undertake. It’s a point worth meditating on as Orner shows the unwillingness of Australia’s current government to address or even acknowledge climate change.

While there are many issues to explore in this film and only so much time, it must be said that the Aborigines communities of Australia deserve a larger spotlight. Burning begins with a land acknowledgement title card and ends with a few minutes devoted to discussing the bushfires in relation to the Indigenous peoples. Other than this bookend, though, their voices are missing. Burning is not meant to be a commentary on Australia’s colonial history or the current state of race relations. But as keepers of the land for thousands of years before Europeans arrived,  Aboriginal perspectives throughout would have been relevant and welcome.

Burning reminds us that parts of the world—California, Russia’s north, British Columbia—seem to be routinely set on fire and we are not powerless to stop it. This film is not just simply a documentation what and why Australia’s Black Summer happened, it’s a call to action. For Australians, it’s a reality at their front door and since that time, the rest of the world has discovered that when our neighbour’s house is on fire, we need to help before it takes down the whole block.

Burning premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released on Amazon Prime.

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