For everyone Direct environmental action: who will speak for the trees?

Activist Dr Lisa Searle. Photo: Tim Cooper.

A new documentary presents the formidable history of direct action in this country and celebrates a new generation of activists fighting to preserve Australia’s natural places. RACHEL POWER speaks to director Sally Ingleton.

When a young couple from Melbourne felt compelled to stop the bulldozing of the Terania Creek rainforest in the 1970s, it was a game-changer for environmental activism in Australia, instigating a new form of direct action involving ‘ordinary’ citizens physically defending ecological sites facing destruction. In her new documentary Wild Things, former teacher turned director Sally Ingleton spends a year on the frontlines of climate action, chronicling the lives of protestors campaigning to save Tasmania’s Tarkine rainforest; the movement against the Adani coal mine; and, in some of the most stirring footage, the young people from Castlemaine who spearheaded the country’s first Student Strike for Climate.

Ingleton, who has now been working in the film industry for 30 years, as well as teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT, combines these stories with archival footage of the history of environmental campaigning in Australia – from the Franklin River blockades to stopping the Jabiluka Uranium Mine to the union-led ‘green bans’ in Sydney – to offer an inspiring record of the power of protest in creating change and preserving some of our most important wild places. The director says she wants the film to give young people “a sense that Australia does have a rich history of environmental activism”.

“People have been working to protect wild places for a very long time,” she says. “So, it’s an opportunity to dig back into the history and really explore that activism, but also see how things have changed and what’s happening today, including the role of social media in helping people get their messages out. Look at Greta [Thunberg], for example – protesting on her own and then, in the short space of a year, a global movement has been built!”

One of the great things teachers can do is talk to their students about these issues, make them aware of what activism has achieved and give them opportunity to get out there and make their voices heard.”

Clockwise from left: activist Dr Lisa Searle; School Strike 4 Climate March (photos by Sally Ingleton); and Tarkine forest protest (photo by Dan Broun).

In Wild Things, Ingleton lets the activists speak for themselves, focusing on a handful of torchbearers but also hearing from a wide array of people taking part in non-violent actions across Australia. While many are putting their body on the line – from picket lines and blockades, to chaining themselves to bulldozers or staging ‘tree-sits’ in the canopies of old-growth forests targeted for logging – most are reluctant activists who consider their actions a “necessary evil” in the face of political inaction.

The film has caused a bit of a fracas in Tasmanian parliament, with politicians on both sides outraged that Screen Tasmania would, according to Shadow Minister for Resources Shane Broad, “fund a ‘how to’ manual for forest protest action”. Liberal Minister for Primary Industries Guy Barnett has since sought to tighten the funding guidelines so that “dangerous and illegal activities can’t be promoted and endorsed”.

This, for Ingleton, is yet more evidence of the hypocrisy currently on display in our state and federal parliaments. “We have a federal government that acknowledges the effects of global warming yet remains unwilling to do anything about it. People do have the right to protest. None of the activists I met were coming from a place of ego. None of what they are doing is dangerous. They’re very much driven by a commitment to the cause.

Bob Brown at the Crotty Road rally. Photo supplied.

“To have Josh Frydenberg describing their actions as ‘dangerous and against our way of life’ is laughable when compared to the risks posed by political inaction on climate change. As one of the protestors says, lawful doesn’t always mean right. There’s nothing right about destroying ancient rainforests.”

It is indeed difficult to reconcile the personal sacrifice and obvious dedication of the campaigners we meet in Wild Things with Scott Morrison’s public indictment of their actions as “indulgent and selfish”. When the prime minister condemned the Student Strike for Climate rallies, saying “What we want is more learning and less activism in schools”, it only motivated young people to take to the streets in greater numbers. As 14-year-old Student Strike for Climate organiser Harriet O’Shea Carre tells ABC radio in the film, she would rather be in school – but until politicians step up, young people feel forced to act.

Adani blockade. Photo: Frontline Action On Coal.

Ingleton also wants her film to show the importance of community, both on the ground and online, in building a movement. “At one of the screening Q&As, Paul Sinclair from the Australian Conservation Foundation told us, ‘There’s three things you can do: 1. Find your people; 2. Find your people; 3. Find your people.’ It’s such great advice. Everyone has a different approach to finding solutions to what we face – not everyone is going to be a front-line activist, not everyone wants to climb trees – but everyone has a community.”

She believes that it’s vital for young people to understand why people protest and what can be achieved. “There are so many instances in history – from the rights of LGBTI people to the Berlin Wall – where if it hadn’t been for the will of the people, nothing would have changed.”

Arguably, this has never been more important. “As one of the young protestors in the film says, if we had been born a hundred years ago, we wouldn’t know what was happening, and if we were born a hundred years ahead, it would be too late. But we’re alive now, and so we can do something,” says Ingleton.

Student protesters Harriet O’Shea Carre (L) and Milou Albrecht (R). Photo: Julian Meehan.

“I really hope the film reaches people who care about the environment and inspires them to get active. But I think it also shows what we’re up against, and [activist] Lisa Searle’s comment at the end is right: that those who want peace have to be as organised as those who want war.”

At a recent screening and Q&A in Melbourne, the audience included a couple in their 80s, two primary school teachers, some members of Extinction Rebellion and a group of students from Footscray High School. This pleased Ingleton, who wants her films to speak to people from as many backgrounds and age groups as possible but feels particularly strongly about empowering young people to recognise their strength.

“One of the great things teachers can do is talk to their students about these issues, make them aware of what activism has achieved and give them opportunity to get out there and make their voices heard. Our young people are the future and that’s why teaching is so important.”

Wild Things curriculum resources, DVDs and online streaming options are available for schools through the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) website.

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