Interview with ANU alum, director and producer of The Giants, Rachael Antony

Few figures have had as powerful an impact on the course of Australian history as Bob Brown.

Currently showing in cinemas, The Giants is a feature length biopic directed and produced by ANU alumn Rachael Antony, exploring the life and accomplishments of Bob Brown alongside a stunning portrayal of the history of the Tasmanian forest and landscape. The documentary reveals his journey from doctor in Tasmania, to eventual leader of the first Greens party, and hero of the Australian environmentalism movement. 

The Giants skilfully traces the achievements of Bob Brown as champion and protector of the Tasmanian forest and Franklin River, beautifully interwoven with the lifecycle and stories of the forest itself. While much of Bob’s life has been subject of public interest and knowledge, The Giants takes viewers behind the curtain. The film explores Bob’s private world and the important figures who have continually supported him behind the scenes. Showing the parallel life stories of Bob and the forest he treasured, side by side, The Giants invites viewers to come to know the trees as Bob did; wise custodians of the land and complex beings with their own history to tell. 

Seeking to both entertain and educate, The Giants explores the horrors of clear felling and logging that plague the Tasmanian forest. While tracing the journey of Brown’s courageous fight to save both the trees and the Franklin River, viewers are reminded of the willing ignorance of political figures against whom Bob fought, showing (as if Australians needed further reminding) the sheer greed and recklessness of private interest and political parties’ historic, blatant disregard for Australia’s natural treasures. This destruction continues to this day. I suggest readers check out the Bob Brown Foundation Instagram to follow the journey of Lenny who is currently attached in protest to a cable logger, protecting the forest around her from logging, which is a critical habitat for Swift parrots. 

Breathtaking drone shots, archival footage, and intriguing animations work together to create a stunning cinemascape for viewers, bringing the trees to life and immersing viewers in the world that Bob fought so hard to protect. For aspiring activists, those interested in the origins of Australian politics, or any lover of the natural world, The Giants is a worthwhile watch. 

I sat down with Rachel to chat about making The Giants, the inspiration behind the film, and why more people should put Tasmania on their travel lists.

To start off with, I’d love to know a little bit about you and your background, and how you came to be directing and producing this documentary?

Long story short, I studied in Canberra. I studied anthropology and politics. And even though I didn’t work in either of those fields, I found that they were really quite helpful because I think both anthropology and politics ask you to question your assumptions and to ask questions of the status quo, and that’s really the starting point of any storytelling, I think. Later I studied journalism at RMIT. So I started out as a writer, and then I guess as time has evolved, and video has evolved, I’ve branched into different mediums and worked in TV and online video.

Originally the idea was to get people off screens and get them engaged into events, but based around the screens, I guess. So one of the things that came out of that was we wanted to do this big event for the anniversary of Cathy Freeman’s win at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. So we want to do that in 2020, and then what happened was everybody loved this idea, but we couldn’t get any money. Then we ended up getting some funding from ABC to make a documentary and that was the best possible thing that could have happened because September 2020, everybody was locked down, stuck at home watching television. Yeah. So that’s how that came about.

So then once we finished Freeman, I guess we were thinking about telling stories about people whose stories are bigger than themselves. Because I think, while people can be fascinating individually, the stories that they tell in terms of the way that their life is, and the messages, the bigger that is, the more compelling it is.

We were thinking about other people who we felt were really interesting and to be honest, really only one name came up and that was Bob Brown.

I think one thing that we were quite concerned about was the messages we’re getting about climate change. We have a kid ourselves, so we have this very tangible link to the next generation. Which is not to say that we wouldn’t have cared otherwise, because we did. Then of course, with the bushfires, what we saw was a massive amount of our native forests destroyed. And then soon after that, you know, while native animals were being pushed to the brink of extinction, we saw state logging operations coming in and conduct salvage logging, so removing old dead trees from the forest that – if they had just been left – would have served as habitat because various species of birds or possums can live in dead trees, and it gets them off the ground away from predators. 

At this point, we just felt this was taking things too far, humans will never have enough. We’ll never say ‘no, we’re done now’. It’s always about more, things are really out of balance. We thought ‘this is crazy’, and around the same time we have been getting really inspired by some of the reading we had been doing. So we’ve been reading the Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard, and they’re making us start thinking differently about forests and trees and also realising how crucial they were. 

We made this film pretty quickly, so it’s hard to remember exactly how it all came together. But what we came up with was telling the story of Bob Brown, intertwined with the life of trees. The reason we did that is because we felt that by embedding the forest into the film from the outset, it sort of explained Bob’s worldview and why he’s worked so hard to save these forests and why we should all care about this as well. We also wanted to show the majesty and beauty of these places. Keeping in mind that, you know, Australia is one of the few places left on earth that does have primary forest. In Europe, they basically have no primary forest. So this is a very long story, but um, an answer to your question ‘how did it end up producing directing?’ well, a whole lot of life events. 

One of my favourite parts of the film was the way it wove together Bob’s personal life with the hidden story of the trees and embedded his story within the story of the forest. I got the impression of so much richness and depth to Bob’s life. How did you decide which aspects of Bob’s personal life you were going to kind of focus on? 

So we decided we would tell the story of Bob, intertwine it with a life of trees, everybody said that was a good idea. Nobody said ‘you’re crazy, how are you going to put Bob’s life into 45 minutes and the trees into 45 minutes?’ And so the answer to that is, we didn’t. 

The film was at an hour and fifty three minutes, we could not get it any shorter. Our first cut was three hours, and we hadn’t even finished making the film. So to answer that, we really had to be quite brutal. I guess, because we had intertwined the life of trees, we had meeting points for both. So that gave us a trajectory, from you know, seedling, childhood, to sapling, maturity, and grandfather elder, if you like.

So we knew where we were going, then we needed to figure out which things to put in, which not. In the end, we had to get rid of a lot of stuff that’s actually pretty fascinating. Bob tried to pass gun control in Tasmania, years before Port Arthur happened and both Liberal and Labour parties shot it down, figuratively speaking. We didn’t put in the fact that he and another bunch of environmentalists were sued for $20 million by the Gunns wood chipping company in Tasmania.

We didn't put in the fact that Bob once took out a mortgage to pay the ransom of an Australian pirate who had been kidnapped in Somalia.

So I know this is so much more, so what we had to do is this broad brushstroke story that connected as much as possible with those key convictions. He talks about optimism, he talks about defiance and he talks about compassion. So we found those stories, the ones that told those stories most strongly, or pointed into the direction of the forest, are the ones that we went to. So it was really quite a heartbreaking process. Also, obviously Paul [Bob’s partner] is a central character, but I’m sure if you’ve seen the films, you know that at every step there’s this amazing woman, right in there, doing exactly the same thing, he doesn’t do it alone. Each one of those women has a whole backstory. Basically we could have made a mini series, but we didn’t, we’ve made a film. So yeah, so the answer is, we just took the bits that told the story the best, and then we had to kill our darlings, so to speak.

Obviously we were always going to talk about his relationship with Paul, and then that became a slightly bigger part of the story, because while we always wanted to present that essentially as a love story, obviously it was complicated by the legal and social context of the time, so we needed to provide some background to that. So we have Paul, who was involved in gay law reform in Tasmania, tell that story about the movement that was headed up by people like Rodney Croome. So that did become a little bit bigger, but I think it also became stronger because of it.

When you were envisioning the documentary, how were you hoping people would feel walking away from it? Was there something in particular that you wanted people to feel or be influenced towards?

We felt Bob was an interesting character because he’s a baby boomer, but his interest in his message is so contemporary. We felt that a lot of the dialogue around climate change has pitted one generation against the other: the generation that’s old and has benefited from everything and stuffed it up for the younger generation. And a lot of that is true, but not entirely true. We felt that the best way to tackle these issues was in a cross generational way, whether it’s on action or voting, or whatever it is. We thought that Bob, because he’s an older person, but he speaks to younger audiences, we felt that he was potentially a unifying person in some ways. What we wanted people to feel was wonder and marvel for our forest and our natural heritage, which is so extraordinary. Most Australians know about the Redwoods, but I don’t think many people know about the Eucalyptus regnans. People would be horrified if they thought ‘oh, you would just pulp the redwoods for toilet paper’, but that’s apparently okay in Australia!

But it's not, because 70% to 80% of people want native logging stopped, they just don't understand what it really entails. People think it's been used to make fine furniture, but it's not, only 2% is used for long term wood products, 60% of it is left on the forest floors, and it’s set on fire. It transforms from a carbon storage facility of a forest to carbon emissions. It's just insanity.

So we want people to feel a wonderment about the forest, but we also wanted them to feel hopeful and galvanised, if that’s possible. We didn’t want to make a depressing documentary. We can’t watch depressing documentaries and definitely can’t spend two and a half years making one. So while some of the subject material was challenging, I think overall it’s a hopeful film, and I think overall, Bob is a hopeful person and you do need hope right now. 

We just need to stay focused on the idea that if we are hopeful and if we act, then change will come. And as Bob says, it was a long campaign to save the Franklin, eighteen months before it was saved, it looked like it was doomed. So eighteen months isn’t a long time, it’s not even two years. So what we think is, let’s talk about native forest logging now and let’s finish it now. Because if we’ve got money for submarines and football stadiums and tax cuts for very rich people, then we have money to stop this industry that’s costing us money and to make meaningful action on climate change. 

There’s some absolutely stunning shots of the Tasmanian landscape throughout the film. How did you balance trying to get those shots with trying not to disturb or harm the ecosystems and wildlife where you were filming?

We worked with a team called The Tree Projects in Tasmania. They’re professional tree climbers, and they helped to rig cameras high up into the canopy. So the opening shot that you see is not a drone camera. We showed the forest in a number of ways. One was using cameras, one was using drones, and one was 3D scanning of the forest working with an organisation called TerraLuma, at University of Tasmania. Then sending the data to Alex Le Guillou who’s a French animator, and he turned it into point cloud animation. The animation you see in the film is actually an actual tree. So what we did was actually cast three trees like you would do three characters. Eucalyptus regnans, which are amongst the tallest plants from the world; Huon pines, one of the oldest lived and myrtle beech in the Tarkine, which is one the most diversity rich trees. One of the people we spoke to described it as a ‘great barrier reef of trees’ because it’s covered in lichen and algae and stuff. Very interesting trees. So in answer to your question, for instance that tree in the Tarkine, it’s just inside an area near a clear fell. So basically, the Bob Brown foundation stopped them logging it, otherwise it wouldn’t have been there. They’re really taking direct action, using whatever means they have to protect the Tarkine and to protect native forest in Tasmania, as are, you know, groups across Australia. And it’s really thanks to their direct action that we could film that tree, because literally, it’s next in line.

Speaking about some of the other groups that are operating in Australia, while you were making this documentary, I think it was at the same time that Blockade Australia was taking action that was very reminiscent of Bob’s methods, these really direct, not aggressive, but impactful stages of a protest. How do you kind of feel about that? Did it give you any similar hope, reflecting on those young people doing such similar work to what Bob did during his life?

I didn’t think specifically about Blockade Australia, but, obviously, we’re all very well aware of the school strikes and all those other environmental grassroots movements, and also youth movements. At the time, I remember just before COVID-19, when there were these massive street protests, and there was debate over whether kids should be on the street or not, and my personal feeling was always to say “when there’s kids on the street, it’s a symptom that adults haven’t stepped up and done their job, so this is the only means left to them.” They can’t vote, they don’t have other means of power. So for me, it was really a symptom of adult failure. I guess we wanted to contribute to that.

I think that when you think about climate environmentalism, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. But ultimately, everybody can do something.

When I interviewed Christine Milne, she said something very interesting, which was that environmental movements need everyone, they need people to protest, sometimes they need people to get arrested, but they also need graphic designers or web people. Ultimately, the world just needs people who can just have an environmental frame of mind.

Maybe you can’t protest, but maybe if you’re in health or education or departments, you often have within yourself the power to ask questions to make changes, and these can add up to quite a lot. I think when you look at Bob Brown and all he’s achieved in his life, him being one person alone, but making that decision is just really the fundamental start.

Something I really loved about the film was how it wove archival footage of the protests on the Franklin together with recent footage of Bob Brown. What was the process like of finding that footage? 

It was really massive because Bob Brown has basically put on fifty years of activism, so he’s been in the public eye for that time. So, we had an extraordinary amount of material to work with, but that was also the problem as well, because there was so much to work through so we did a number of things. We got a lot of news, archived from the ABC, and probably most of what you see of the Franklin is that, but the more recent Franklin footage was sourced from other places. 

One of the reasons why we showed modern footage of the Franklin is that the older footage, I think, fails to capture the beauty because it feels a bit faded and it doesn’t quite have the aesthetic quality of contemporary footage. So we wanted to really show, ‘actually this is how it looks and it is really spectacular’. Also access from the National Library of Australia, they have Bob Brown’s personal archive there, which is again, massive amounts of boxes, and we were able to go through that to get childhood photos and reports, and letters and get up the idea of who was crucially important in his personal life, and then there are a number of documentaries as well that we could source material from. So, let us say that we have an archive producer who basically has this spreadsheet from hell, so it’s a huge job. 

When you were going through the process of filming, you said it was over two and a half years. Was there a particular memorable or special moment either with Bob Brown or maybe just with the trees, that stands out to you from your time making the film?

Well, so when I say two and a half years, that’s not filming, that’s doing everything so you know, producing, scripting, and post production everything. We did the shoot in Liffey, at Bob’s farmhouse and it was really, I guess, interesting, because he had talked about this house as like this companion and this friend. So it was interesting to go there and see how it was, and suddenly just to be struck by the warmth of that environment and how beautiful it is. Because you’ve got the farmhouse, you’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the river and all the elements are in place, and I feel like there’s something in that landscape that really balances Bob’s idea, which is like you’ve got this little human space, which is the hut, but there’s space for nature all around it. And that for me sort of encompasses the way he looks at the world. We should take up a little bit of space but let everything else flourish.

What’s interesting is the Tarkine where we filmed, it’s really 30km away from Cradle Mountain National Park, which is one of the biggest tourism draw cards in Tasmania. So you could literally go there and just drive along [to the Tarkine], and that would be like the perfect tourism adventure, but it’s just being logged and Tanya Plibersek is yet to rule on whether that forest will become a toxic waste dump for a Chinese mining company. So really, the more people who go to the Tarkine and talk about it, the better, because this is an absolutely astonishing rainforest and the Bob Brown Foundation has this encampment out there sometimes and you can go and meet people and find out about the place.

When you stand in that forest, it's weird, it's like you're not standing on ground. You're standing on this sort of spongy surface. It's like millions of years of organic matter beneath your feet and it's so quiet, it's just really unworldly. So I really encourage people to go there, as Bob says, the Tarkine is a very arresting place.

THE GIANTS is now screening at Palace Electric Canberra, find all screenings:  https://www.thegiantsfilm.com


There will be a National Day of Action for Native Forests  – including Canberra on August 19. Details here: https://defendthegiants.org/events/

 

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