A Fire Inside – movie review

As we approach another hot, dry summer here in Australia, this inspiring documentary is both timely and relevant. A Fire Inside was filmed largely during the bushfires that devastated much of Australia’ east coast in the so-called “Black Summer” of 2019-20, the worst fire season ever recorded. An area the size of the UK was burnt out and the smoke cloud caused by the fires circled around the globe. Some 3000 homes were destroyed, a massive amount of wildlife was killed, and 18 million hectares of land were burned out.

A Fire Inside comes from documentary filmmakers Luke Mazzaferro and Justin Krook, who previously collaborated on Machine (2019) alongside writer Nick Worthington. Krook himself is a documentary filmmaker who worked on I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2016), while Mazzaferro is a writer who has frequently collaborated with local filmmaker Patrick Hughes on films like the neo-noir western Red Hill and The Expendables 3.

The documentary follows two distinct strands. The first concentrates on the devastating fires themselves, plenty of apocalyptic images, dramatic stills and lots of footage of the firefighters and their efforts to control the conflagration, superbly edited together by Scott Walmsley. The fires were largely fought by volunteers. In fact, there are some 170000 volunteer fire fighters in Australia, and they comprise around 90% of the fire fighting forces. We meet two of them here, and they talk about the personal toll faced by firefighters.

28-year-old Nathan Barden joined his local fire brigade as a 16-year-old, following in the footsteps of his fire fighter father. “Fire fighting is sexy,” he says when talking about his reasons for joining up, “but dealing with the mental health aspects afterwards is not.” Having rescued a family from their burning home, Nathan was later consumed by a sense of guilt as he was unable to save his uncle and cousin who perished in a fire at the same time. Brendon O’Connor is a veteran firefighter who suffers from bouts of depression in the months afterwards, and he eventually seeks counselling in order to find peace. There is also some emotive footage of a funeral for a fallen firefighter.

The second narrative strand follows a close-knit rural community that was affected by a triple whammy of disasters. Firstly, a long period of drought in 2019 had affected farmers, then the bushfires burned out hectares of property and destroyed fauna, cattle, and crops. And just as relief efforts were helping the ravaged community get back on its feet the COVID pandemic struck and brought everything to a halt. Mazzaferro and Krook provide some harrowing first person accounts of the fire and its aftermath from some of the survivors.

By contrast an indigenous fire expert talks about the vastly different approach to preventative fire maintenance and backburning between Aboriginal communities, drawing on centuries of tradition and experience, and the dangers posed by the approach of white communities.

The film is a testament to the courage of the firefighters and the resilience of the communities as they attempt to rebuild. Much of the footage here will strike a raw nerve with many of those who lived through the the devastating fires, but A Fire Inside is certainly an eye opener. The dramatic music score from Matteo Zingales is also quite effective.

Greg King

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