The Influence

For Joëlle Gergis, the film Baraka is a reminder of the love that drives her work to preserve our planet. By Kate Holden.

Joëlle Gergis

A Kayapó child in the Brazilian rainforest in a scene from the 1992 film Baraka, and Joëlle Gergis (below).
A Kayapó child in the Brazilian rainforest in a scene from the 1992 film Baraka, and Joëlle Gergis (below).
Credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy (above), Lannon Harley / ANU (below)

Dr Joëlle Gergis is an esteemed Eureka Prize-winning climate scientist and one of the co-authors of the current Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She is also the author of Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia (2018) and Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope (released last month). She is a frequent media commentator, urgently describing the crisis facing Earth and the emotional cost to the scientists who confront it more closely than most of us.

She chose to speak about Baraka (1992), a magisterial documentary film of visions taken across the planet of humans, nature, technology, landscapes, built environments and the ineluctable spectacle of life.

Was it easy to come up with this as your influence?

To be honest it was the very first thing that came to mind. When I first saw this film – I saw it in 1996 – I was with a bunch of my university friends, and we were at the Byron Bay Arts Factory, they were screening it there. It just blew my mind. I was already studying science at uni, but that film was an opportunity to travel around the world without leaving home. It was a meditation on the human condition that I found life altering. It really was. It inspired me to save up money and travel around the world myself. On that journey I realised that I really wanted to be a scientist.

Without a single word they were able to move something in me that shifted my world view, that I think I’ve carried with me. Working at the United Nations level with the IPCC was another one of these experiences of having a bird’s-eye view of the entire planet. The film does that too. You really get to see cultures and landscapes from all over the world and just how extraordinary our planet is and how amazing humans are. The human condition is heartbreaking. The poverty, the inequality... it’s the impossible nature of it. It’s one of those things that brought it all together for me.

It still brings me to tears. There’s just so much at stake right now, and sometimes we forget why it matters and we get caught up in these conversations about reducing emissions or really technical discussions about policy, and we alienate people. But ultimately it boils down to the people and places that we love. It comes down to love. That’s a big motivator for me being a scientist, as odd as that might sound. It’s just because I feel really moved by the beauty and wisdom of the natural world, but then also by how we ascribe meanings to things.

One of the big themes in the movie is spirituality in all its different forms and guises. Even in the form of reverence for the natural world. That’s the closest I get to religion: those experiences I have when I’m in nature. I feel this eternal force that’s there. I’m a part of nature, and it’s a part of me. It makes me feel that I want to be a custodian for this extraordinary life force; I want to do what I can with the privileges that I have.

I can’t help but wonder how different it was for you to see this as a young person in the ’90s, full of plans for the future and in love with this vision of the planet, to how you view it now, knowing what we know about the jeopardy we’re in. I watched some clips this morning and of course they made me cry: for the beauty, but also for the vision of how much there is to lose.

This is the first time I’ve watched it since doing the IPCC. I’ve seen this movie many, many, many times. What do I love about it? You mention what we have to lose, but there’s just so much inherent strength and beauty in the human condition, which I think is moving: to watch how people endure the most incredible hardships, how they manage, and there is life force that really wants to live and thrive and exist, even against all the odds. This is a movie that puts it in your heart.

You could watch it again in 20 years from now. It’s a bit of a scary prospect, because I also thought: this is archival. There are places and cultures that probably don’t exist anymore. I watch this film and I’m moved by the diversity and richness of cultures everywhere: they’re all worth saving and they’re all extraordinary in their own way. It’s something I felt with the IPCC: quite literally there were people from all over the world. At this moment when the world feels like it’s crumbling, collectively we made something that was so much more beautiful than anything we could have done on our own. There’s still goodness in humanity. What the film shows is the universal thread: we are all connected by the fact that we’re all animals on the planet, we share this one planet. And there’s so much joy in it.

There’s so much beauty in the world still. That movie shows you beauty and heartbreak. How do you reconcile these? Because it’s also brutal. Some of the war scenes: they have scenes from the Gulf War, the killing fields of Cambodia, they have Auschwitz; these are the atrocities which have scarred humanity, yet we continue to do it. The human condition’s impossible! So this movie is a deep meditation on what it is to be human. It has a timeless element: I’m watching it now as a 44-year-old and I’m getting completely different things out of it because the world around us has changed – and yet it hasn’t.

People have said this is the only film necessary to show the aliens. Ron Fricke, the director, said something interesting: “Life invited all of us to planet Earth, and life didn’t ask any of us to approve of the guest list.” Do you ever think that, if asked now, the rest of the planet would choose not to include humans on the guest list?

It’s tragic to think that, isn’t it? But they’d have a case. It’s about the meaning of your own life, and what you’re going to contribute. None of us is going to save the world, but we can do something. We can be a positive force rather than an agent for destruction and chaos and causing someone else to lose faith in humanity.

Doing the IPCC report was heartbreaking. We were looking at every single part of the planet and reporting on how badly they had been damaged by human activity. The deepest ocean trenches and the highest mountain tops. There’s a strong Indigenous element in the film, a reminder that there’s a deeper time-knowledge and wisdom in how we interact with the planet and the natural world, that we’re a part of nature. But we’ve chosen to walk away from that and destabilise it.

The planet’s lost its equilibrium, and I think humans have too. We’ve lost the way. It’s no longer a scientific issue, it’s a cultural issue. We must start to value these things and say collectively, “we care about preserving our natural places, we care about preserving cultures that have lived by the sea for millennia, they have a right to exist”.

How do we get people to care about this stuff? We need to move them emotionally. We have to make something shift in their heart. I challenge anybody to watch this movie and not cry.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Joëlle Gergis".

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