The Burning Season

Documentary narrated by Hugh Jackman, with Dorjee Sun, Lone Droscher-Nielsen, and Achmadi. Directed by Cathy Henkel. Rated PG (Infrequent coarse language). 90 min.

This film has proven to be popular on the Festival circuit, and is now set to be well-liked on commercial release. Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of carbon, after the US and China, and the movie picks up major issues contributing to the problem. It begins in Borneo where orang-utans are dying because of the deforestation and clearing of their habitat. The destroyed forest is covered in smoke that creates carbon emissions, and the roaming of the animals through the devastated land makes a very strong emotional point. Lone Droscher-Nielsen is a Danish conservationist, dedicated to saving them, and the scenes of her sanctuary give great force to this powerful and informative documentary.

Another issue explored, in a deeply moving segment, is the annual burning season of old trees to prepare the way for the farmers to plant new trees for the production of palm oil. The local authorities and palm oil companies refuse to stop clearing. There are known consequences of de-forestation and negative outcomes of carbon emissions, but there is also the fight for survival of both the people and animals who are dependent on the land. Achmadi is one of those people; he makes his living by growing the trees for their palm oil for international cosmetics and confectionery corporations. He understands that his life work is part of the climate change problem, but he does these things to feed and educate his family.

The film features the Australian entrepreneur, Dorjee Sun, who emerges as the main player, working to develop carbon credits as a pay-off for funding the preservation of forests. He travels the world to talk to conservation activists, Indonesian politicians, and Western financiers and develops a financial, business model to put in place at the 2007 Bali Climate Change Summit. Sun conducts business any way he can, and his amiable manner makes him hard to resist, but he is committed intensely to finding a solution, and this is also a film about his remarkable achievements. He realises that in Indonesia, those who govern the country must embrace new income streams to support the people, and they need to include carbon trading. At the same time, the film exposes us to the argument that carbon trading is a way of allowing industry to avoid its responsibility to reduce its own emissions. An excellent narration by Hugh Jackman maintains the film's tensions, and cartoons of Indonesian puppetry are used innovatively to sharpen understanding of the issues.

This timely film helps to clarify contemporary international debate about the control of carbon emissions, and presents current players on the world stage. It is directed humanely and intelligently by Cathy Henkel and poses multiple challenges. What is the balance between control of the environment, and economic survival, especially for indigenous people who are critically dependent on their use of land? And how is that balance best maintained, and monitored? The agony and personal conflict of these choices are portrayed movingly in scenes involving Achmadi, the Indonesian farmer, as he moves from denial to a plea for help that shows a growing willingness to change.

The film inspirationally sustains feelings of great optimism and hope, and importantly serves an educational purpose by pointing the way to how the issues might be solved. The burning will continue unless a different vision is achieved, though one fears that a long-term solution might well prove to be elusive.

It is inevitable with this movie that there will be some comparison to Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth", which is also about climate change. Both are highly relevant documentaries on a vital global issue, and Gore appears in this film, but this movie moves beyond Gore's message to inject a more human element that focuses on individuals' responses to threat and opportunity. There are key scenes in this movie that are almost impossible to forget, such as the Indonesian farmer who weeps for burning his land, knowing that he has done wrong.

This is an important Australian film, which richly deserves to be seen.

Out Now: Virgo Productions, Freshwater Pictures, and Gil Scrine Films.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.


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