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Oscar-winning documentary-maker Eva Orner says that despite the dark places she explores, she never gives up hope. By Ruby Hamad.

Filmmaker Eva Orner

Eva Orner.
Eva Orner.
Credit: Chris Young / The Canadian Press via AP

“I was just exposed to Covid five hours ago!” Eva Orner can’t help sounding chirpy even when isolating in a Utah hotel room. Hours before our Zoom conversation, a Covid-19 scare temporarily shut down production on the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s upcoming documentary, set in the world of fundamentalist Mormons in Utah and Arizona.

“The crew is trying to get home,” she says. “It’s like, oh god, what is going to happen over the next few weeks? But what can you do? You’ve got to roll with the punches.” She laughs. “Just focus on the positive,” she says, as much to herself as to me. And with that, Orner gives a glimpse into her outlook on life and work.

One of Australia’s most successful Hollywood-based filmmakers, Orner burst onto the global scene as a producer when she and director Alex Gibney upset Michael Moore’s Sicko to take home the 2008 Best Feature Documentary Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, an exposé on the Bush administration’s torture techniques during the Afghanistan war. Almost immediately, she made headlines for referring to the administration as “a bunch of war criminals”.

She has since made a slew of equally sobering films, first taking on the role of director with 2013’s The Network, about a band of siblings who establish the first independent television station in Afghanistan. Since then, she has tackled Australia’s draconian immigration policies with Chasing Asylum, a secret same-sex love affair between an Iraqi soldier and an Iraqi translator working for the US government in Out of Iraq and, most recently, the compelling allegations of fraud and sexual assault against disgraced celebrity “hot yoga” founder Bikram Choudhury in Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.

Orner is, in her own words, “definitely not scared to point the finger at people”. Yet this fearless determination is accompanied by a cheery disposition that seems almost incongruent with the horror she documents. “I’ve always been quite smiley and giggly in a funny sort of way,” she says. “I make all these serious films and then I do all these screenings and Q&As, and I think people are surprised when they meet me.”

Her latest feature-length documentary is no exception. Burning, which she proudly claims is the first to explicitly link the disastrous nationwide bushfires of 2019-20 to climate change, has just been released on Amazon Prime. “There is one thing I am really committed to with this film, and that is that I want people to vote with climate change as their No. 1 concern,” she says. “We are past the tipping point. All the reports show we are behind our targets. If there was ever a time to change the way you vote, or to vote for one issue, it is now. It is not the economy; it is climate change.”

Burning has an unflinching view of the causes of the Black Summer fires, including the inaction of the Morrison government and its Coalition predecessors. The combination of archival footage with her trademark intimate interviews with survivors, activists and scientists leaves the scale of the destruction and impact on humans – as well as flora and fauna – beyond doubt.

And so too, the blame. “People need to know who the villains were and who caused this,” she says. Orner takes particular aim at Scott Morrison’s unwavering commitment to fossil fuels. “In 50 years people may not believe that any of these kinds of things happened, and I think Scott Morrison and his government need to be held accountable. He is not solely responsible, of course, but he’s being a buffoon and he’s endangered people’s lives and really damaged the country to a point of no return. And I think fossil fuel companies [and] the Murdoch press should be held responsible.”

Adamant that she is not an activist but a filmmaker, Orner recognises the limitations of film, ultimately an artistic medium, to effect social change. “Of course, you want your film to have an impact. If it changes the way people vote or how they talk about things, it’s valuable. But also, there is value just in documenting things. I think it is irrefutable that all of these people are the villains in this and they should be noted in the future for what they’ve done.”

Her collaborative approach is apparent in the praise she has for people she assembled to tell this story. As well as residents who lost their homes to the fires, Orner conducts illuminating interviews with a range of public figures, from teenage activist Daisy Jeffrey to former fire commissioner Greg Mullins, scientist Tim Flannery and author Bruce Pascoe, frequently peppering their words throughout our conversation. “Daisy was only 17 at the time of shooting,” says Orner. “She has her whole life ahead of her and she has spent her entire childhood fighting something that we messed up, so how can people not feel compelled to do the right thing?”

The burden placed on the next generations leaves Orner wondering about politicians who, unlike her, have children and grandchildren and yet appear – also unlike her – entirely unconcerned about the climate’s future. “I am stunned that people don’t think about the future and only think about themselves and the here and now,” she says of those who are willing to sacrifice the future at the altar of the next election cycle. “As Greg Mullins says in the film, he is not going to be around to see it but his kids and grandkids will. He’s such a good man and it’s kind of heartbreaking seeing him juxtaposed with politicians who just quite frankly don’t give a shit.”

Most frustrating for Orner is that the situation is fixable – as long as we act now. “It is getting really late now and the world is definitely going to get a lot hotter and drier and more difficult to live in,” she says. “But if we did everything we were supposed to do and we make all the resolutions we were supposed to make at Glasgow, we’d still have a chance to stabilise [the climate] by the end of the century.”

Orner is referring to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, held in Scotland in early November. “I went into COP knowing they were not going to achieve a lot because these countries never agree on anything,” she says. “In that circle I’m considered a pessimist, but it turns out I was right, because I was honest. I think I am just a realist.”

Although COP26 did end in a resolution to reduce reliance on fossil fuels in favour of renewable energies, critics including Orner argue that the pledge falls well short of that which is required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2050.

“The world premiere of the film was at the Toronto Film Festival in September and the audiences were talking so much about the unprecedented fires they’ve had in Canada,” she says. “Tasmania is burning, New Zealand is burning. Everywhere is burning. We are kidding ourselves by pretending that it’s not going to happen.

“That’s just one of the weird qualities of human beings,” she continues, gliding seamlessly into a more philosophical stance. “It’s like people who smoke, [they] know they are doing something bad to themselves, but they can’t stop. It’s this fallibility of human beings. And we are all guilty of it. But destroying the place you live in is not a smart long-term strategy and we’ve been doing that for a long time.”

Speaking with Orner is like watching optimism dance with horror; a space that much of her oeuvre occupies. “How can you make a film with all these people and then just forget about them? Everyone stays with you,” she replies when I wonder how she manages to draw a line between her professional and personal life. She concedes that the two frequently blur together, and that this exacts a very personal toll.

“I did some serious therapy” she says. “I felt a lot of guilt actually. It’s almost like survivor’s guilt, that you leave all these people behind. It all really affected me around 10 to 15 years ago. How can you feel good about anything because there are people suffering? I was taking it all incredibly personally [and] feeling PTSD and some trauma and stress. So thanks to Brad, my therapist. I have not seen [him] in years now but I spent quite a few years learning how to take care of myself and not feel guilt all the time. Somehow this therapist was able to make me feel more comfortable in my skin and accept me living a life that can be quite happy and joyous and still do the work that I do.”

To Orner, psychotherapy is vital for anyone whose work takes them into the darker side of human nature. “I have a lot of friends who are foreign correspondents in tough places. Some of them do well and some of them have really bad trauma, and the ones that are doing okay have done a lot of therapy,” she says. “It’s not easy; you see things that probably no one should ever see, or you go through experiences that are really dangerous. And I think the best advice I ever got was, go see a therapist to learn how to manage this...” She pauses. “Because you have got to live as well. You can’t just feel the pain all the time.”

In her early 30s she was also introduced to transcendental meditation. “That was a big one, I never talk about that anymore,” she says, of the Vedic technique that comprises two 20-minute sessions a day. “That’s really helped me, made me calmer and sleep better. I think [meditation] gets the anxiety out of you ... a lot of people say, ‘Oh I don’t know how to meditate, I can’t sit still, I can’t think about nothing.’ But it’s actually the opposite. It’s when you process all the stuff that’s lying around in your head and then there it goes, that you can then focus on your day and your life.”

Orner’s current focus is on resuming her project on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), or more specifically, on life after FLDS. “It’s about people who got out and the struggles they’ve had to move on after being raised in such a strict, polygamist sect,” she explains. “So it is about strength and resilience and courage. But also, it’s really sad because to tell that story you have to tell the story of what they went through … It’s definitely a part of America I haven’t seen before and is quite shocking.” Then her optimism kicks back in. “But it’s also quite inspiring.”

Despite its urgency, Burning also leaves room for optimism. “There is always hope,” Orner insists. “Making this film, I was very aware that coming out of Covid, people would be shattered. They can’t be dealt a film with no hope … There are still things we can do. The people who know so much more about this [such as] Tim Flannery [and] Greg Mullins, what I love about them is they don’t give up, they keep fighting. Bruce Pascoe says [in] the film, ‘Of course we can do it. We just have to do it together and do it fast.’

“At the same time, it is more important to tell the truth, which is we are in really, really dire trouble. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying, it means we try harder. It’s an epic battle that is happening.” She laughs again, interrupting her own train of thought. “I don’t know, maybe I am the foolish one. I’m not going to be around, why do I care so much? But we are gifted to live on this beautiful planet and in my lifetime we have completely screwed it up. How can this not be our greatest concern and biggest worry?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "Burning questions".

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Ruby Hamad is an author and PhD candidate at UNSW.

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