Burning Director Eva Orner Talks About Creating Activist Documentaries, AIDC, Mental Health, and More in This Interview

Oscar winner Eva Orner’s filmography is made up of a deep catalogue of activist films, from the asylum seeker focused Chasing Asylum to her work as producer on Alex Gibney’s American military focused Taxi to the Dark Side. When the 2019/20 bushfires hit, Eva was on the other side of the world in Los Angeles, witnessing what was taking place in her home of Australia. Jumping into action, Eva and her crew made the stunning bushfire documentary, Burning.

Eva Orner is a guest at the 2022 Australian International Documentary Conference where she will talk about her work in a panel aptly titled ‘Agent for Change’.

In this interview, Eva talks about her role in making activist documentaries, and more.


I watched Burning last year via the Toronto Film Festival online? It was a bit of a surreal experience as well because I watched it — probably I shouldn’t be telling the filmmaker this, I’m sorry, but I watched it on my phone just before I had to go to a press screening.

It’s okay.

And I was sitting in Luna in Leederville and just had tears streaming down my face while I was watching it.

Oh gosh. That’s pretty good on a phone.

It was so good. And then I watched it again at home when it landed on Amazon Prime. So this is the third time I’ve seen it, just rewatching it last night. And it’s such an effective film.

I’ve only seen it, I think, three times on a big screen like in a cinema. I don’t think I can ever do that again. It’s like really painful.

It is. Rewatching it last night is just like, oh gosh. It hits like a punch in the gut which is how it should do. But it’s got to be really hard to make that kind of film, I imagine. Emotionally, you make some really devastating films. And I’m grateful for that because the stories need to be told. But I’m always concerned about your mental health and wellbeing after you make them.

(laughs) I guess now that I’ve got a body of this kind of work, I get asked about that a lot. And I think ten years ago I was kind of hitting a wall and I didn’t really know how to deal with it. And I had to get some therapy and it was a little bit of post-traumatic stress. There was a lot of guilt, a lot of pain, and I had to kind of learn how to be able to do this and live with it. And I don’t want to be at a point where I’ve distanced myself from it and don’t feel. So it’s more how you can also live a full life and not be consumed by guilt and pain.

I had a really great therapist, I text him every now and then or I’ll send him an interview where I mention him. (laughs) I don’t know how he did it. It’s sort of magic to me how psychology works, but he managed to put me in a position where I can — it’s not killing me. For a while it was starting to impact on my life in a really heavy way.

It’s a good thing for a lot of us to go to therapy to get the support that we need and things like that. But I think that as we move forward into a climate change world, it’s going to become even more pressing. One of the things that people have concerns about is climate change. And it’s hard. “Go seek help, seek therapy” is what’s often said, because it’s something that is really difficult to maintain and grapple [with], especially since obviously bushfires become so more frequent and so prevalent. I’m in Western Australia and our beautiful southwest is currently burning. It’s terrifying.

I saw that. And it’s weird. It’s like the beginning of February and I’m sitting at home in LA. And so it’s the tail end of winter here and today’s 31 degrees Celsius in Los Angeles.

That’s crazy.

There are times in winter when it does get warm. I think 31’s pretty out there for the middle of winter here.

Especially since it was 41 degrees last week for us. So you know, it shouldn’t be the same temperature over there as it is here.

Yeah, it’s not good.

Let’s talk about the Australian International Documentary Conference because I’m beyond excited about that. And I’m excited about your talk as well because it’s about the urgency of the matters that are occurring right now, and the urgency of the issues of the world, the politics of the world. I’m curious for you. The urgency for all of these things seems to be something that is really prevalent in your blood as a filmmaker Where did that come from?

Gosh, good questions. I don’t know. I think there’s a bunch of things. I’ve always had a really curious nature. I’ve got a strong kind of journalistic streak in me and I love storytelling but I also love storytelling that’s significant and has consequences. When I moved to America, I worked with Alex Gibney who’s one of the key documentarians working today. And he just made a film called Enron, and we got to make a whole bunch of films together. And I think I got a sense of it from him as well. I think I’ve got a real interest in giving voice to the underdog and the persecuted and people who don’t have a voice. I think that’s really important.

And I think it probably comes from my upbringing, from my family history, and I don’t think I realised this until only a few years ago. My family’s from Eastern Europe. My father is no longer with us but he was born in Poland, in Vilna, Jewish in 1937. Three of my four grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust. They came to Australia in the Fifties. My parents met in Melbourne where I’m from, you know, and had a great kind of immigrant experience in a country that welcomed them, like many people who arrived in the Fifties. But, you know, I grew up with parents of action, without grandparents or cousins or a big family because most of my family was killed in the Holocaust.

I think knowing that happened to your family because of who you were in terms of your religion at a very young age maybe put something in me that — I don’t know, a fire — that I wanted to give a voice to people who are voiceless. That’s my amateur kind of sleuthing psychology, working out maybe where all this comes from. But I definitely had like a — what’s the word? I guess a brand. It’s a terrible word to say. I mean, it’d be really nice to do something fun as a filmmaker. But I think I’m really attracted to stories that I think are really important for our time and for people who need voices.

I agree.

And I do quite like to go up against the government.

I do get that impression throughout your films. Watching Chasing Asylum and watching Burning in particular, there is this real ‘stick it to the government vibe’ to them. Having seen your films multiple times, I continually sit there and I wonder, how do you manage to balance the activism and the storytelling and yet never feel like it’s you standing on top of a soapbox and preaching and kind of pushing people away as can sometimes happen with those kinds of narratives? How do you manage to balance that?

That’s nice to hear, thank you. I mean, I’d probably give that credit to my editors. (laughs) Because I think I do kind of get on a soapbox. Films like Chasing Asylum and Burning – I have to have a very clear opinion and point of view. A lot of films – pure vérité observational – even the most vérité film still has the filmmaker’s imprint. I think I’m very clear on where I stand and what I believe and who my villains are. My two Australian films I’ve made since I moved to America, which is Chasing Asylum and Burning, I’m very comfortable pointing my finger at the government. Also in Burning, at the Murdoch media.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong about that, I actually encourage that. I don’t think it’s propaganda. I think the people that I criticise are very comfortable saying it’s propaganda because it’s against them. But it’s a thoughtful essayistic approach to filmmaking with proof and examples, and it’s a visual storytelling. I hope they make compelling films, but I think it’s okay to have an opinion in filmmaking and on subjects like the treatment of refugees and climate change. I think we need a lot more opinion, backed up by facts, and all of these films are all backed up by facts. If they weren’t, I’d be sued.

Eva Orner on location.

The amount of people that you have in the film talking about what is currently going on (is impressive). There is a point where Greg Mullins says, “If you’re a climate denialist, I don’t care about you anymore.” The truth is there. We know what is going on.

I think Greg is phenomenal. The film is almost a bit of a love letter to him and his career because he’s done such a service to Australia. And, you know, the governments tend to not listen to him and I think he’s had a huge impact but also a really hard time. I have so much respect for him and I admire him so much and how he doesn’t give up. I feel like that about all the people in the film. They’re so extraordinary.

There are so many legends and icons here and people who clearly don’t ever really expect to have been in the spotlight. Daisy [Jeffrey] talking later on in the film, “This is the most frustrating and difficult thing I’ve ever been associated with.” I’m paraphrasing but you can just tell that she just wanted to have a life as a kid. And this has been pushed upon her just like it’s been pushed upon so many other people in the film that they are forced into action.

That’s what I love about Daisy. She’s so important in the film, because so many people, older people say, “Oh, you know, the younger generation will solve – it’s their problem to fix even though we created it.” And you really see what that means when you talk to Daisy, the amount of pressure that’s on her shoulders and what she had to do from the age of like sixteen. I mean, she’s now currently at university, I think she’s eighteen or nineteen. She spent the last couple of high school years doing this as almost a full-time job, being a climate protester and a student activist, and that’s fantastic. But at the same time, she laments the fact that she should just be being a kid. I’ve never really heard a young activist talk like that, and I thought it was really powerful and really fresh and something that should weigh heavy on our shoulders, the mess we’ve created for the younger generation. I have so much admiration and love for Daisy, I think she’s quite extraordinary.

She really is. I remember attending protests here in Perth at the time and just feeling the country being united by this anger and frustration and just the despair for the younger generation because the older generation has in many ways abandoned them in the political leaning and stuff like that. It becomes so frustrating to have these political squabbles about something that is so real and so tangible and we can see it actually happening.

I think it was during the Q&As for Chasing Asylum, you’d mentioned about how 40% of people will go and watch this film and already be on board with the narrative and supporting asylum seekers, and then 20% will have their opinion changed, and then the other 40% will stay the same. Is that something that you’ve kind of brought to your films as you’ve made them with Chasing Asylum and with Burning as well? This idea that there is a percentage of people who are already on board with the story, and then there’s a percentage who will be changed by what you’re presenting? And then others who will just say, “This is a lie.”

I think probably forty on each side that have got their mind made up. It’s the magic twenty – I mean, this is in my head – the magic sort of 20% in the middle who aren’t sure who you could sway. But that 20% is enough to change the world. I mean, if you look at how tight the elections are in America or even Australia, it’s that group in the middle that can go either way. I feel like that’s your audience in terms of effecting change. And it’s about getting them to see the films that you make.

That’s one of the great things about being lucky enough to make films for the global streamers. My previous film was with Netflix and my current film is with Amazon. You’re getting your film going out to over two hundred countries on the same day and tens or hundreds of millions of people. To me, that’s what’s great about working with such incredible platforms.

Probably the climate change figures are different in Australia now because I think more and more people are coming around to it because it’s inevitable. Everyone’s feeling it. Everyone’s seeing it. And I’m assuming the amount of deniers is getting smaller and smaller. But you know, we’ve got an election coming up and I have a horrible feeling — I tend to be a realist, not an optimist and I guess some people would call me a pessimist but I’m not. You know, I’m incredibly concerned that the government’s going to get re-elected. If a film like this can have an impact, that would be wonderful. So I hope as many people as possible can see it.

I agree. And being on Amazon has made it so much easier to be able to point to people and say, “Here it is, watch this film.”

Exactly.

The voting public’s mind is so easily swayed by the media cycles and things like that, and it can easily feel like, “oh this happened a few years ago, it won’t happen again for a while”. That’s a bit terrifying, especially (with) all the media things that I’ve been hearing. I’m a bit like you in the sense of being a realist, but everything’s pointing to having a hung parliament of some sort. And that terrifies me because we need to have some kind of change. And yet we’re sitting here talking about what kind of curry Scott Morrison’s made. Let’s focus on the world that’s actually happening out there.

It’s very scary, and I feel like it’s similar here. We’re facing the inevitable here in America of losing both houses in November and then facing maybe the increasing inevitability that Trump will get in, in a couple of years. So I feel like it’s really up to us to vote out bad leadership, but we’re not doing a very good job of that globally.

That’s why I was appreciative of the focus on the Murdoch media as well in Burning because it is really pointing out the hypocrisy and the madness of it, especially when – I think it was at the end of last year when they started going on about “Oh, you know, climate change, we need to have some more action on climate change.” And it’s like, “Hang on. You didn’t have that opinion years ago, and yet now you’ve woken up and decided to write something that says that we need to have some kind of action.” It just doesn’t make any sense.

I think that’s worth talking about because they’ve been the villain in climate change denial for decades, and it’s been a company policy. And last year toward the COPS in Glasgow which was – I think it was November. We went there and showed the film there, but I can’t remember that exact date. But it was just before that they came out with this sort of press release saying they’ve decided to turn around their policy on being climate change deniers – is essentially what they said.

It’s not fact-based journalism. It’s not fact-based reporting. I wouldn’t even call it journalism or reporting, I’d call them basic liars and spreaders of misinformation. I’m very comfortable doing that.

And that’s what they’ve continued to do. So it was very sloppy journalism that the press around the world picked up this pathetic press release where they said “We’re not going to do this anymore,” didn’t take them to task enough for the damage they’ve done, and then just kind of left it out there hanging when they really did nothing to reverse their position. It was incredibly cynical and it’s what they do best which is to spread misinformation.

The other thing that I think is really interesting is in my lifetime a fact used to be a fact, and science used to be a fact. And I find it so concerning and terrifying that science is now debatable. You know, how did this happen? A lot of it’s through religion, I think and obviously rampant conservatism. But the fact that people can just say “I choose not to believe the science” and get away with it — to me, that’s criminal.

It very much is. And that was part of the comfort of seeing Kevin Rudd’s real push to have some kind of action against the Murdoch media, have a Royal Commission into Murdoch media. And of course, we’ve not seen that come about yet. But that’s again the hope of having a change of government. Whether that happens or not, who knows.

It’s very easy for Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull to do that now because they’re not Prime Ministers. But when they were Prime Ministers, they were pretty soft on Murdoch. And that honestly pisses me off. Because people now lionise them and say what a great job they’re doing. And I understand politics is complicated and governments are made up of coalitions and you have to bow down to some conservatives and I get it. But at the same time, the power of standing up when you have the voice as the leader of the nation is very different from when you are the ex-leader of a nation. It’s all very well for Malcolm Turnbull to be doing what he’s doing now. But why wasn’t he doing it when he was the Prime Minister?

Agreed. And it seems that now that they both out of being Prime Ministers, they’ve found a heart, they found a soul. It’s like “where was that when you were in”?

It’s great and I say fantastic. But let’s just not forget who they were when they were in charge and what they did.

Exactly. Well, I really appreciate your time and being able to talk about your work and I’m very excited to see the conference and hear what you have to say and especially have your discussion with Katrina [Sedgwick] as well. It’s gonna be really exciting. So yeah, looking forward to it.

And thank you again for your time and for your films. It means a lot.

I really appreciate it.

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