Regenerating Australia Director Damon Gameau Talks About the Need for Storytelling, Impact Campaigns, and the Vision for Australia’s Future in This Interview

After impressive turns in notable Australian shows and films like The Kettering Incident, Balibo and The Tracker, Damon Gameau’s move towards being an activist documentarian has been one of the most exciting transitions in Australian films. After directing the highly acclaimed health-focused documentary That Sugar Film in 2014, and following it up with a hopeful look at the action against climate change in the environmental focused 2040 (2019), Gameau returns with another forward-looking film called Regenerating Australia.

Just like 2040, Regenerating Australia asks the hypothetical question about what Australia would look like in 2030 if it simply listened to the needs of its people. Currently touring around Australia with community screenings, Regenerating Australia encourages community vision and action.

In this interview, Damon talks about the purpose of being a storyteller right now, about the role of activism on film, and more.

I’ve been a huge fan of what you’ve been doing as a documentarian ever since That Sugar Film, which is a film that a lot of people still talk about quite a lot nowadays. I want to start off the discussion with a big question which is: what does being an Australian documentarian mean to you?

Damon Gameau: I guess it’s about the role of storytelling in this moment that we, as a species, have evolved to tell stories. We live in a collective story as a human species, and right now that story is being narrated or gate-kept by large Hollywood narrative or huge advertising agencies on behalf of corporate monoliths. And they are controlling a narrative that is taking us rapidly towards the precipice, and is a huge existential threat across a range of areas. So I feel that being a storyteller in this moment that is trying to use the medium to have an intervention on that collective narrative is really important and a big responsibility.

I wish more artists, poets, songwriters, musicians, filmmakers, whoever it might be, use their terrific skills to promote the changes that we need in this moment, because we are in a really dire predicament, and I think story is the way through. If the storytellers can’t find the way, then the way can’t be found. That’s our role in this moment. So I take it as a great honour to do the work I do and just love it and feel it’s very important in this moment.

I really appreciate the work that you did with 2040. I thought that was a very powerful film, and seeing you following it up with Regenerating Australia just makes sense, especially at this pivotal point in time where we’re heading into an election. It feels fortuitous that this has been released at this period of time. Was that always the intention, to have it released around the election campaign?

DG: No, actually the initial plan was to go in October of last year. We did finish it in the middle of last year, but then obviously everything was happening with COVID. We just kept getting pushed back. And then we scheduled it for December, and everyone’s gonna go away on their break. And then we looked at early February, and then that changed, so we just kept pushing it back. And as it turns out, our last screening on the tour is actually on Friday the 20th of May, the night before the election.

Look, I think it’s been good. It’s been great timing, the conversation in screenings and the engagement from the audience have certainly gone up a notch because of the stakes that we find ourselves in. And I think the recent floods also were a big motivator for people to come out and get involved, get engaged and not just see the film, but then follow through with the impact campaign that we’ve got with the film and apply for some funding to develop their own solutions in their communities. People are feeling so paralysed by the lack of leadership that we’re getting especially federally, that any tool we can provide them to allow them to get on with it or feel like they’re contributing or making change themselves in their own communities is really valuable at this time.

With that in mind, both this and 2040 are very apolitical films, they’re not pointed at any particular political party, they seem to be more focused at politics in general. How do you maintain that kind of balance of not being pointed in one particular political direction?

DG: Well, I think we try and acknowledge that we’re not going to fix the climate crisis or any other of our existential threats without a system change. So each individual party is a player within that system. But the system itself is the one with the flawed architecture. Really, there’s no perfect party at this election, to be honest. There are ones that are less bad than others. We just can’t tinker around the edges with these problems.

So it was quite easy to not go into the pettiness and the divisive nature of the politics in this country, but rather stand and hold a bigger vision for that, that hopefully all politicians or human beings can support. That’s certainly been the case with the film. We deliberately didn’t want to put it into a partisan camp, because then you ostracise a whole group of other people that need to get this messaging and understand it. So we’ve been very encouraged by the diversity of politicians and parties that have actually screened the film in the lead up to the election and had really interesting discussions about it.

These aren’t as radical conversations as they might have been three or four years ago. I think there’s a sense from any political party, especially people with children that with the floods like we’ve seen recently, the politics drops away very quickly, and people on the ground just want to get it done and help out. I think we’re sort of getting to that point where it doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is, you can see what’s happening around us, and you just want to find the best way forward.

It’s not as simple as that, that’s obviously an idealistic way of approaching it, there’s a lot of barriers to that. The system is very good at protecting itself, as we know in this country. But that was a big reason: to not fall into that partisan game, because it is a game. The politics is an industry just like the food industry, just like any other industry, and the rise of division, and it’s done very well at polarising and othering us. This is an issue we just cannot be divided on because it’s so important and involves us as a species. We need to be very careful not to fall into those games.

And I think that’s a big reason why we haven’t progressed in this country like we should have, because we’ve dehumanised this topic, and we’ve othered people, and we’ve wronged people in the fossil fuel industry, and the workers. And so they’ve doubled down and said, “Well, bugger you, we’re not going to change.” We’ve got to be really strategic about how we approach this moving forward.

With that in mind, can you talk about what the Innovate to Regenerate Challenge is?

DG: Basically, it’s saying to anyone who sees the film, if you resonated with something in there and you’ve got an idea spread across some of those issues we cover in the film, that there’s a fund for you. There’s grants, there’s 10, 20, 50, 100, $250,000 to help you develop your idea. You work with WWF and their subject matter experts. They’ve got a huge array of people across a range of different fields that will help you develop your idea and get it to a point where you can apply for that funding or even beyond. There’s a group of impact investors behind this as well that are ready to scale up solutions that come through.

We’ve been on the road now for a month and we have almost 150 ideas that have been submitted already, and I would say that 80 to 90% of them are incredibly robust and fit the mould of a regenerative idea, and would have huge multiple benefits to the community. So the plan here is to sort of give people a sense of agency, and also to start forming legitimate regenerative networks for our country so that we do have this community-led ground up recovery that puts pressure on the business community, putting pressure on our leaders at the federal level to say, “Look, we’re getting on with this ourselves, look what we’re doing in our own community,” and amplifying those stories to other communities, and giving them the toolkit to enable them to develop themselves because then we will build up the response much quicker.

It’s very much that ‘think global, act local’ kind of thing where if you do the change with your neighbour, then hopefully the change around the world will happen. What have you seen takes place and change since you made 2040?

DG: Well, just that. We talked before about the power of storytelling, you know, at all different levels. We screened the film to world leaders at the Climate Summit in 2019, I have had a screening with Emmanuel Macron and his Environment minister. I’ve had CEOs who walk past their daughters or sons watching it on a TV and suddenly reach out and say, “Hey, what’s this?” Or people see it on the plane. You never know who’s going to see your film, and it’s led to some extraordinary interactions that I’ve had, or even policy changes in some countries. And then all the impact of the local level where we were able to provide people with pathways to get involved, whether that was crowdfunding that seaweed platform which is now in the process of development down in Tassie. The kelps have been tested and grown in the waters there and are really showing great signs and of growing extraordinary amounts.

Since we did that, we crowdfunded the micro grid project, transitioned five hundred farmers to more regenerative practices through people making donations or helping out. And again, just that difficult to quantify data around the discussions or the conversations that people have with their children or in their communities. That’s the real potency that storytelling can have on the culture, how we shift norms, how we create new behaviours and languages and talk about these things. That’s very, very hard to measure.

And I’d say that the closest we have for that is probably the impact at the curriculum level, which probably gives me the most pride. We’ve had 52,000 teachers download the 2040 curriculum materials, and almost 2 million kids now are being taught those curriculum materials. So they’re the ones that stop me in the street or write to me online and say, you know, “I’ve just made a film because I’ve been inspired by that. I’ve just had this invention for seaweed, I’ve made this.”

That’s the bit that I feel the most proud of, because that’s that next generation that are embedding these different values and different ways of thinking, and are excited about what their careers in the future might be if they’re going to contribute to turning this problem around.

So that’s why I’m such an advocate for the power of storytelling in this moment linked to really clear pathways of action because that’s the way we’ve always been moved. If you can open people up, get them excited by a better future and then provide the ways that they can help contribute to that future, then you’ve got a much better chance of bringing more people into the tent at a time where the majority of the population, not just in Australia, but around the world are completely disengaged with this topic.

A lot of them care about it, but they just don’t know what to do because it all feels too existential, too big. You know, we’re living in a limbic capitalist state where everything we do is geared to hijack us, whether it’s dopamine and online or in our food. It’s very hard to get people to care about this stuff because there’s so many distractions, paralysing them with overwhelming fear. You know, I think we’ve done that. We now have to sort of start showing them the better world that’s possible, the exciting world that’s possible if we start making these changes.

And kids are just natural idea creators, they just think, think, think. It’s fantastic.

DG: That’s the best thing. All the screenings we do of this new film – they’re the ones. We leave the school just buzzing because the kids – all they’re learning at school is how much plastic is in the ocean, how bad climate change is, how endangered koalas are. None of them are being taught about the exciting engineering projects or solutions or new grids that have to be built. They’re the things they want to get involved with because a lot of them do care about the planet. They’re fighting against the system and taking to the streets. But they also want to know the things they can do, or the jobs that they might want to get involved with to make a difference. Especially with our kids, we’ve got to be very careful and more strategic with those narratives we share with them.

So how do you go about getting films like this and 2040 into schools and into the curriculum? That’s obviously part of the impact campaign, but what kind of discussions take place to get it there?

DG: Different approaches. So we work with an organisation called Call Australia, and they’ve got a huge database of Australian teachers, and they provide a lot of curriculum sources based off film projects, because teachers are often looking for that kind of material. And then what we did with 2040 is do a really big pre-screening session. So most of the teachers saw the film before anyone else did in the country, and we’ve had really full cinemas.

And the same with this film, we had huge Zoom calls. Almost 10,000 teachers signed up for that, just to watch the film in advance, and then we took them through the process and take them through the materials and how it can be used in the classroom, what subjects it’s mapped to. And you know, a lot of the teachers are wanting to teach this stuff. They’re like anyone else and they’ve got kids and they care about the future. And so they get excited by the fact that these curriculum materials are available, because certainly the government’s not providing them. Which it should be. We talked about how even [John] Howard had a sustainable schools initiative back in 2007, but then that got canned.

So it’s just madness, that we are pretending the world isn’t going to be different for these kids in ten or fifteen years, and we’re just teaching them the same things that we’ve always taught them, that you and I got taught at school. It’s just madness, given what’s happening to the world and what is going to happen in the next ten or fifteen years. We just need to be really careful and thoughtful about the different skills we teach our kids and the jobs that they’re going to have to go into if we’re going to turn it around.

It’s exciting to know that you’re out there doing this and you’re out there connecting with the community and talking with people about these issues, because that’s how things get changed. I know certainly from my personal experience, I’m part of a local climate change group on for my suburb. And at the end of last year, people were buying copies of 2040, both the film and the book, and giving it to people to talk about prior to the election, which I just thought was fantastic and really interesting.

DG: Nice, nice.

Yeah, it was exciting to see that besides having the film there, the book as well is something that has been able to connect with people. How important is it to have that aspect outside of the life of the film itself?

DG: It’s this whole idea of the social impact campaigns that really has emerged. We sort of really trialled it with That Sugar Film. It’s just so important. As we know, documentaries can be so evocative in terms of what emotion they push up for people, whether that’s fear or overwhelm or excitement, whatever it might be. But then five minutes later, because of that distraction and the limbic system that we’re in now that hijacks us, you can forget about that emotion or the film and be just in a completely different headspace ten minutes later.

So I think it’s really important to provide the tools that people once they have had that experience, the emotional experience of the documentary, to continue their path and deepen that journey. And that’s why we provide all the online materials. Certainly, I noticed with 2040, when we were touring that, that there were lines out the door for people wanting to get a signed copy of the book for their kids, to take home that feeling or whatever happened to them in that room watching it. They wanted to hold on to that or have a reminder of it, or pick it up from the coffee table and flick through it.

Also, that allowed me to put more of the details that I couldn’t put in the film, because it would have been way too long and boring. But to actually then extrapolate some of those concepts into a book form that again felt accessible and playful and easy for kids to use as well allowed that deeper dive where the film was just really an entree for people to get into this world. And then learn more about regional agriculture or seaweed farming or renewable energy. It’s almost like a teaser to a much bigger paradigm. That’s what often happens. So many people have told me they quit their job and then started something in the electric vehicle space or the micro grid space, or people starting seaweed farms now because they saw the film. So again, that’s the potency of storytelling. And that’s why we need more people telling better stories in this moment.

You obviously spoke to a lot of people over four months for Regenerating Australia. What was the thing that surprised you the most about the interview process with people?

DG: That we have far more in common than the mainstream or narratives or algorithms tell us. That online space is geared for outrage, it’s geared for division and polarisation. And so it is putting us [against each other] and dividing us into camps. That’s how it keeps us online, that attention economy. But when you actually talk to people, no matter what their political views are, there are things that we can really come together on and especially around environment. I’ve found that obviously, teenagers, people in cities were talking more about climate action and using those words, but even the farmers were talking about greener hills or cleaner rivers again and the Australia of thirty years ago. So there was an opportunity to come together there and actually find common ground.

The same with the world community. People felt so frustrated by the erosion of communities, and that’s particularly what our economic system has been about in the last thirty years, of commodifying everything and destroying that idea of communities. They wanted a sense of that back. And they wanted to know the people who were living around them and interact with them more, and wanted more of a say in the governance about what happens in their communities.

I think that’s why we’re seeing the rise of these independents right now. There was an overwhelming sense of frustration and anger with the political system. No matter which side people were on, they felt it was a bit broken, they didn’t trust the politicians, they wanted something fresh and different in the political space. So that was why I put that quite front and centre of the film, that that wasn’t just my view, that was something that was coming through really loud and clear. How do we do our politics differently? How do we get to have a say about the complexity of our region which we know much better than some politician who lives two kilometres away?

They were the main themes coming through, and then there was lots more sort of shared views around amplified Indigenous voices. A lot of these regional towns wanted solar batteries set up now for their own energy sovereignty. They wanted to own their own energy. So you know, lots of reasons to be encouraged. Even some of the coal workers talking about “We want a secure community and reliable jobs just like you do. We don’t want our jobs taken away. If you came to us and said that, ‘Hey, you know, we’re going to switch to start making high end electric vehicles or batteries or turbines or greenfield projects and hydrogen,’ we’d go for it. As long as the money is similar to what we’ve got. We know our industry is coming to an end. But don’t just tell us that we’re terrible, and we’re ruining the planet, and we should just give up our jobs.” Because that’s not going to work on anyone, no matter what industry.

If we’re smart about it, we could do this transition really fairly, create huge amounts of wealth for the regions, and have this really powerful involved leading country in the world. But as you know, we are tied to the old system for a host of reasons through our media, through the amount of money we make from fossil fuels. That incumbent system is very reluctant to give it up. And they are controlling the narrative or the story in this country. And that’s why these other opportunities aren’t getting the airtime they deserve.

Well, I’m so grateful for your film. I’m so grateful that you’re putting these films out there and really pushing this campaign. It’s always exciting to see you bring out new films, because I know it’s going to be really exciting, thought-provoking stuff. And this one is all about community, and that’s what I think is really beautiful. So thank you very much, Damon, for the film and for your time and being such a great supporter for Australia.

DG: Good on you, mate. It’s a lovely thing to say and thank you for your storytelling and what you do because you’re obviously amplifying in your way as well. We’ve all got to stick together, all got to get this collective story out there so I appreciate the support.

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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