Franklin Director Kasimir Burgess Talks About Honouring Nature, The Protestors Who Save it, and More in This Interview

In Heather Rose’s Bruny, the main protagonist, Astrid Coleman, asks herself amidst the aftermath of a destructive event: “Why are Tasmanians so good at protesting?” Within Kasimir Burgess’ monumentally powerful documentary Franklin, which looks at the history of the protests that saved the Franklin River from being dammed and the legacy of those who saved the river in that time, the answer is succinct and clear: Tasmanians are so good at protesting because the land that they live with is not a resource for plundering, but rather a place to appreciate for the moment of time that we are fortunate enough to exist alongside it.

It is a soul-changing entity that defies humanity, yet through our own ingenuity and inventiveness, we have found a way to conquer the world under the misguided notion that we are doing it to further our own cause. Many of the trees in the region surrounding the Franklin River predate the invasion of Australia, weathering time and humanity for hundreds of years.

The act of protesting within Tasmania is a right that is threatened to this day, with the current Liberal-led government seeking to implement harsh penalties that could see protestors face jail terms of up to 12 months, and fines that would financially immobilise protestors. If we talk about cultural identity, then that of environmental protests is entwined in the identity of Tasmanians, with stories of the island state often being tinged with triumphant bouts of activism that have protected the magnificent nature the region has to offer. Tasmania is equally defined by the push and pull of capitalism and the never-satiated mouth that feeds it, giving way to people in positions of power who seek to further conquer and consume it all in the name of ‘progress’.

Whether they succeed or are hindered, protestors lives are often changed by the act of putting their reputation on the line, with their presence on the frontline defining who they are for generations to come. For activist Oliver Cassidy, that definition comes from his father Mike who was on the frontline to stop the mighty Franklin River from being destroyed and mangled into being a hydroelectric damn in the early eighties. Within Franklin, Kasimir joins Oliver as he embarks on a solo rafting trip down the Franklin, following in his fathers path and getting to experience what Mike, Bob Brown, Uncle Jim Everett, and the over 1,271 legendary activist figures who fought to save decades ago.

Kasimir’s eye as a filmmaker has often been a deeply empathetic and curious one. Whether it be the essay of grief and destruction within his 2014 film Fell, or the explorative portrayal of one of Australia’s most complicated public figures in The Leunig Fragments, his focus as a filmmaker has always been on the inner self, poking and engaging with the notion of what it means to human in the world today. Franklin sees a marriage of the themes within both of those films in a masterful manner, with Burgess eager to expose and explore nature, while also investigate the souls of the people who have fought to save and protect it.

The journal writing of Oliver’s father, Mike, flows across the screen, sinking into the landscape as the dulcet tone of Hugo Weaving’s voice narrates, honouring Mike’s spirit with grand respect and admiration. Meanwhile, Luke Altmann’s warm score reflects the soul-enriching feeling of nature completely, transporting you as closely as the magic of cinema and sound can to the banks of the Franklin River. As archival footage is intertwined into Oliver’s narrative, we’re reminded of the breadth of time, and how in a moment we are standing side by side with the past, walking in unison, acknowledging that in a moment the future could be lost forever, and the energy that exists right there and then would dissipate into nothing.

Franklin is Kasimir Burgess’ most accomplished work to date, acting as an all-encompassing work that posits the viewer alongside Oliver as he embarks on his journey, allowing us to experience a version of the awe and inspiration that Oliver experiences in real-time. Yet, as he journeys down the Franklin, we’re also guided along the path of being reminded of the struggles that took place years ago, and within those struggles, we are reminded of the need to continue to fight for this natural world we call home. Archival shots of carnage are peppered throughout the film, acting as a counter-balance to the harmonious movements of the protestors and reminding us that while humanity is capable of communal forces of good, it is also capable of cruel and spiteful acts of destruction.

The last time I spoke with Kasimir was when The Leunig Fragments was about to be released, just before the pandemic turned our world to shit. In this interview, we explore the journey to getting Franklin made, the importance of trees within Kasimir’s work, and more.

Franklin screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival before heading West to Cinefest Oz.

For more information on Franklin, visit the films website here.

This interview has been edited for clarity purposes.

How did the pandemic impact your plans to shoot this?

Kasimir Burgess: We managed to find a window of opportunity in the middle of the pandemic and get over there. During quarantine there, I started editing [and] that two weeks in the hotel was some of the most productive in the whole time just getting my head around Tom Haydon and Michael Cordell and Roger Scholes, beautiful and yet extensive archive from their experiences during the blockade and throughout the campaign. It was invaluable, really. And then going remote on the river, I think that was ideal, really, away from it all and isolating in quite an extreme way.

Did you go down the river alongside Oliver and I assume the cinematographer [Benjamin Bryan] as well?

KB: And the producer [Chris Kamen] and drone operator [Luke Tscharke]. We, as a team, were trying to give Oliver as much space as possible for his experience to be authentic and to be connected with nature rather than an annoying director.

I’m curious about what you learned from The Leunig Fragments that you were able to implement into Franklin?

KB: They’re such different projects, you know? Maybe just patience with a story that slowly evolving and not really being able to rush something. It’s probably almost the case that they are different films, and different stories and different approaches. That not much was I was able to transfer if that makes sense. Leunig was about just one very specific individual and this was this was about many people, and a much bigger, bigger story, nature and our planet. So it was sort of micro and macro.

With that in mind, revisiting both Fell and then Leunig and then watching Franklin, this feels like a culmination of the work that you’ve been doing.

KB: Thank you. Some of those motifs and themes that run throughout those films [are] similar and maybe in harmony. I definitely have a connection and affinity and a love of nature and a breaking heart for what’s happening to our forests and our rivers and our air and our Earth. And I think that the thread, if there are any, throughout my work and certainly preoccupation, it’s hard for me to comment on that. It’s almost like it needs a voice from outside. That you’ve spotted that is impressive. I haven’t heard anyone draw that line.

I just found that the cinematography and the observance of nature and Fell, and then the observance of humanity and personality with Leunig, they’re combined perfectly here with Franklin where you’re observing and looking at the world around you in this really wonderous manner. And I think probably the most powerful moment, and I imagine it’s an intentionally powerful moment, is when Bob and a few other people are talking about the pivotal change in the protests, which got Australia on board [with the protests], was seeing a particular rock formation [Rock Island] and being able to share that image. There is a really strong emotion in that scene, because we’re feeling like we’re there, and the cinematography that immerses you so completely in what’s going on. I haven’t been to Tasmania myself, but I felt like I’d been there because of what I was experiencing.

KB: That was so good to be there. And I felt like I would recognise it. It’s so iconic from Scholes, and Haydon and some other films and [I felt like I] had sort of been there with that grainy 16 mil footage but being there in the flesh was very different. We all kind of sat there in quiet, as Mike Cassidy writes. The trip was very fast, we had to move down the river just constantly in motion and getting coverage. But that was one moment where we stopped still for a little bit and just took it in. Put the camera down even.

It’s an image that was spread far and wide. It was in mailboxes and posters, and it came to represent the beauty of the place. It just interested me that as a single image like that from an inspired artist [Peter Dombrovskis] could make a difference.

This event occurred before I was born, yet those images have been around for a long time. For me [as] somebody who’s interested in the environment and activism and protest movements, that image has stuck with me because it’s profound nature, it’s beautiful. And so it does inspire us. That feels like something that has certainly has inspired you. Were you a young kid when the Franklin River protests were occurring?

KB: I was three or four years old. It was a seven-year campaign [and] I was alive at the tail end of the blockade. I do remember things, seeing a few news reports and that kind of thing, but it didn’t really sink in. There was one image of a massive line of protesters on TV I remember seeing it at my grandparents, like a river snaking off into infinity and hearing that it was the biggest protest in Australian history. So even as a three- or four-year-old, it made an impression but it wasn’t to be thirty Chris Kamen, the producer, bring my attention to just how extraordinary the story really was and then to dig deeper into some of its personalities and facets.

How did you go about organising the narrative in a sequential manner?

KB: We were lucky in that way, it’s kind of it has its own momentum and highs and lows and twists and turns. Just the history story that it is, I guess, and then it was the challenge was to marry that with Oliver’s more personal journey. His more existential searching through grief and self-discovery upon the river as he reflected on his nature and nature and his father. That more meditative journey on the river has had at times quite a different energy to the history driven story. That was a big challenge to work with those different tones and rhythms and bring the two together, but I knew that I didn’t want to tell the dry history version. It really needed something more personal and more emotional for me to engage an audience and for me to really want to invest that much time and energy in it.

What point did Oliver’s story come into the fold?

KB: It was from the very beginning. Chris and Oliver came together and actually had an idea perhaps of the story [even before I came on board] and Oliver’s trip upon the river could be a backbone in the story. I was really grateful to have them and their knowledge, which is far greater than mine when it comes to the all the beats in the history. Chris and Oliver have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all of the moments in the campaign and the blockade. Chris had studied that in high school, and then later in law. Chris, and I had worked together on shorts and things, Directions [2008] was one short, and Lone Rider [2007], so we had we had a really good friendship and working relationship.

He said something about how it was “Malick-esque, it was in your ballpark.” I think he was just saying, “There’s nature, there’s politics, there’s a nice emotional coming-of-age story.” So just lots of ingredients that I could play with in my mind, trying to work out how they could all coexist and inform each other and then form into one cohesive whole.

Oliver Cassidy

I imagine that having those different narratives as well allows it to be a little bit easier to control or manipulate in the edit room. You’ve got something to cut to rather than the main story.

KB: It was really important for me to have moments where we’re really celebrating what Mike and Bob [Brown] and all of these activists helped save. And just exist in nature and to do that felt like quite a statement in its own way. We’re just enjoying Rock Island bend or this tree or this rock formation [it] felt like a necessary part of the story, rather than just a “Oh it’s great that it was saved,” and a few fleeting epic visuals. We just wanted to sit in that space and time and feel the spirit of the place.

With that in mind, one of the motifs that is brought up is about how the resonance of the past lingers in the present. And I’m curious for you as you’re filming the journey along the Franklin, the feelings of the ancestors of Australia [are] there but I wonder if the feeling and the echoes of the protests is there as well in the surroundings?

KB: It’s really only at the very end of the river when it broadens out and it’s the Franklin and Gordon, that you start to spot signs and you visit the places where they were protesting. The river itself was such a difficult journey [for] Mike Cassidy and Bob Brown, and there are others, but the majority of it took place at the very end of the trip. Bob Brown made a few really great short films, [there’s] a beautiful 12-minute Super 8 shot on the river and there are so many moments from that film that I recognise. It feels like a like a dream.

They went down in summer and it was just listening and the cinematography is really sort of poetic and it’s got this psychedelic synth to it and that just makes you fall in love with the place. Then seeing it with your own eyes and filming it in glassy, 4k resolution you have all of these layers of connection to the place and they all kind of blend your memory of it to your memory of the various films. They’re all kind of like sedimentary layers, they just kind of layer up and layer up and certainly they’re informing consciously and unconsciously your interpretation of it and how you depict it.

I feel like it was Mike and Bob Brown observations along the river both in diary form, photos and Super 8 that gave me a haunting connection to the place and a sense of the place. It was almost like a déjà vu through Mike and Bob’s experience of the river. It was quite uncanny and beautiful. Bob’s still alive, obviously, but it does feel like you’re following a ghost with regards to Mike, because it was one of the big experiences in his life. Oliver’s told me at some point that he feels like if dads’ spirit is anywhere, it’s on the Franklin.

Let’s talk about the score, [which] is so immersive and really quite beautiful. How did you go about creating it?

KB: I worked pretty closely with Luke Altmann, our lovely composer. The the first film he ever did was Fell, and then the second film was The Leunig Fragments, and then his third film was Franklin. We’ve developed a shorthand. I put in temp [music], which is the usual practice, just to describe a general feeling of it, and then he’ll look at that and then sometimes throw it away and put forward a suggestion of something better. Sometimes we really struggle on a scene and it can take months and months to get the right thing, and then other times he’s just right from the beginning, which is great.

Sometimes Luke would make a piece of music for a section, and this happened quite a bit actually, I’ll line up the timecode and I’ll be like, “You know what, this will actually be way better over here.” [I find] it’s sometimes better when you find a piece that’s not annotating too specifically, it’s less cliched and less literal. You can find something happy to go with something sad. It’s kind of surprising what ended up being moved around and where the rightful home is. It often confounds and delights Luke and I, and we’re both open to sculpting the score right up in the last minute and making sure you have the right feeling.

One of the notes that I discussed with Luke was “Let’s keep it organic,” with wood instruments in the forest and not get electronic and not get too fancy. There’s one big piece over Rock Island bend, that’s the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and that’s the one time we blew most of the budget on that. That was the one-time Luke and I felt the need for a much bigger, more immersive and nuisance sound down there. Everything else is understated. That ASO piece around Rock Island bend goes for like nine minutes. When we’re talking about Dombrovskis photo, that feels like the heart of the story there. A piece of art can, you hope anyway, can make a difference.

Mike Cassidy

I watched this the other day, and then we got the news about the Tarkine forest being protected. But I think one of the things that I really appreciated about Franklin is that, I’ve seen a lot of films about protests and activism, and they are often very good, but they carry this tone of ‘we ought to be sad and we’ve got to change things’.

KB: That big wrap up at the end, that big didactic moment where you’re looking at the ice melt, children in third world countries dying.

Which works don’t get me wrong.

KB: We actually had one of those scenes.

Did you have a discussion about it?

KB: It was like “Well, maybe this story is powerful enough, and that the message or that the intent is clear enough.” That protest and activism is important and can transform the world. It didn’t feel necessary anyway. But Oliver, and the producers, and I, and co-editor Johanna [Scott], you’re so close to it. Does that exposition need to be there or is it just inherent in the fabric of the film? Like I was saying before when you’re filming, when you’re just sitting in nature, it does feel like quite a statement, quite political in its own way. Just appreciating what’s there. What’s still alive for now.

It sounds silly to say almost, but it feels like a brave choice to make, because it’s the expected resolution. But it’s something that for a lot of us, we get that message every single day when we open up our news apps and read about what’s going on in the world. We know about it and so not having that push or that reminder was quite comforting. And it made it resonate a lot stronger for me at least.

KB: And to not be bashed over the head with it. We did want an uplifting end. I mean, we’re looking at a tortured tree that’s been desecrated by some of the workers there, but it’s still alive. Like our earth, desecrated, but somehow still alive. It feels like if you’re looking closely enough that that contains the same message as you might do in a five-minute wrap up of the global environment situation. You can do that in one tree.

And we noticed that my last three films finished an image of a tree.

I didn’t even think of that. No. Is that a conscious choice?

KB: Well, it is. It’s just for me, really. It was just the way that it happened. But you touched upon it before, saying there are some clear motifs in the films.

Let’s lean into that question then about if you’ve got a body of work in mind as you’re creating things?

KB: Probably no tree at the end of the next one. I can see a pattern emerging for sure. But it just feels like how could you make a story and it doesn’t contain some love for the earth and celebration of what we have? And an idea that it’s worthwhile to protect it moving forward for generations to come.

I love doing it and the journey that it takes me upon and the collaboration the friendships that are forged, what you learn about yourself and about humanities is great, which makes it makes for a pretty cool job.

And you make some pretty cool films. You’ve done a beautiful job. I genuinely love this film. I think it’s, it’s quite profound and beautiful. And it’s an interesting companion to Jennifer Peedom’s River. I think there was just this beautiful kind of resonance in your film from that. Obviously because of the relationship between the river moment in her film where basically there’s footage from all around the world of dams being blown up and then rivers being revived. And I just kept on thinking what was at stake for the Franklin. With these two films I’ve been thinking about [this] even more this year, so I’m grateful for that because it’s not something I really would have thought that I would be spending much time thinking about, but that’s what the cinema is makes you reconsider the world.

KB: I watched a few hours of those images of dams being made just to try to get my head around it as well. Because it’s sort of “Oh well, it’s just the river getting bigger, right?” But it’s not til you see that all the nature dies, and a lot of the natural curves are completely reshaped that you start to get a sense of that destruction of the place, as well as its physical geographical facets. That was an eye opener for me.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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