Australia’s Black Summer of Bushfire has been well documented and dramatized, however few of these stories are produced and relived by the victims themselves. ‘We are Conjola – Our Fire Our Story’, is one such film. The film’s director, Anthony ‘Ash’ Brennan, owned one of the 89 homes destroyed in Conjola Park on the western edge of Lake Conjola when bushfire hit the NSW South Coast on NYE 2019.
The feature length documentary not only recounts the horrific evens of the bushfire, it also highlights the community’s artists whose creativity carved a pathway to recovery for locals.
The opening scene finds a shocked, overwhelmed and emotional Brennan returning to Conjola Park to find his house reduced to flattened, charred ruins. We quickly move onto the brave storytelling by his neighbours and area locals who somehow miraculously survived. The astonishing stories of loss, heartbreak and resilience are illustrated by the unique vision captured by those caught in the firestrorm.
This never seen before footage, supplemented with beautifully shot artistic vignettes detailing recovery, takes the viewer on a roller coaster of emotions. From Jen Dodman’s near-death experience on the beach surrounded by burning wildlife seeking refuge in the water, to the uniquely Aussie story of Eben and Luce Winley who, when the water failed, extinguished the flames with beer intended for Xmas / New Year celebrations.
From the obvious questions of climate change and indigenous land management to the not so obvious failures of emergency services, We Are Conjola puts the viewer in the line of fire and asks, ‘What would you do in this situation?’
More importantly, the film acts as an historical document from which government agencies can learn from their failures, to hopefully lessen the impact of such disasters in the future. It also gives the community a voice, allowing them to share their experience and trauma in their own words. Some using instead, their chosen artform to convey their message.
When the film was released in local cinemas exactly 12 months after the fire, Brennan and Poulter were concerned that it could possibly trigger those who were impacted. In fact, their reaction was completely the opposite with the community unanimous that the film has helped them recover by giving them some closure.
All nine cinema screenings of We Are Conjola at the Arcadia Cinema, Ulladulla sold out as quickly as the sessions were announced and all were met with standing ovations.
The film has also been a hit on the festival circuit, winning awards in New York, Los Angeles and Edmonton, Canada.
Locally, the film has recently been nominated for the Supreme Feature Award at the Melbourne Documentary Film festival with Brennan also in the running for Best Director.
From Anthony ‘Ash’ Brennan director –The awards and accolades are obviously great reward for this massive task, but they are accepted on behalf of the Conjola community whose kind donations, support and insight, made this film a reality.
From Clinton Poulter, producer –
There’s so many amazing stories told by those who survived the Black Summer of 2019/2020 and I thank everyone who bravely shared theirs with us.
‘We Are Conjola – Our Fire Our Story’ is currently streaming on the Films for Change and Hyvio platforms. New Zealanders can catch it on the Rialto Channel as part of the Sky NZ cable network.
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