Films pay homage to interminable spirit of environmentalists

By Christie-Anna Ozorio
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Defendant 5 and Black Ice | Environmental Film Festival Australia

Environmentalism is not just for “hippies” and Bob Brown anymore. The elephant in the room that is global warming has truly sparked the fire within the bellies of seven out of 10 Australians, if the mainstream media is to be believed. A recent, and more credible Ipsos poll on the matter shows that the majority of Australians are of the opinion that action needs to be taken to protect Australia’s environment and natural resources.

Documentaries Defendant 5 and Black Ice depict the current face of the environmentalism movement — Defendant 5 documents the lobbying against logging giant Gunns Ltd’s killing of ancient forests in Tasmania in the 2000s, while Black Ice follows the unlawful incarceration of the crew of Greenpeace’s ‘Arctic Sunrise’ only two years ago.

The films, shown in a joint sitting at the Environmental Film Festival Australia, are both testaments to the inspirational endurance and spirit of the environmental movement, both at the most basic grassroots level, and on the world stage.

The theme of David versus Goliath runs through both pieces, symbolic of Australia now, as the Government seeks to remove the standing provision in the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act so that “vigilante” green groups cannot practice their “lawfare” against “struggling” Indian coal mines or, in Defendant 5, a timber company worth more than Tasmania.

The fate of this amendment will be announced on 12 October. The Environmental Film Festival as a whole, but also these specific documentaries, are particularly pertinent to Australian society and politics.

Defendant 5 is the cinematic version of taking a walk in someone else’s shoes for an hour. Written and directed by Heidi Lee Douglas, the documentary depicts the before, during and aftermath of the lawsuit that Gunns brought against 20 individuals involved with environmentalism in Tasmania, particularly those who were vocal against Gunns’ logging of Tasmania’s ancient forests.

Gunns sued the defendants for $6.4 million for “conspiring” to destroy their business, and they employ Douglas’s – then a self-professed naive, young filmmaker – own documentation of the anti-logging lobby as evidence against her and the 19 others their lawsuit. Embroiled in a legal dispute, Heidi turned her camera on to herself to document her personal struggles over the years of the dispute, as she morphed from filmmaker into activist.

The documentary intersperses Heidi’s original footage with recent interviews with the key players both in the Gunns lawsuit and Heidi’s own battle. This culminates in an incredibly moving recollection of an important win for the environmental movement, as well as the Tasmanian community and grassroots activism.

For anyone with an interest in the legal standpoint, the case also provided a landmark decision in the implementation of civil justice reform legislation, which effectively threw out the 100-page statement of claim that Gunns tried to foist for a second time, a clear abuse of process.

Black Ice reflects the undercurrents of Defendant 5 on the global scale, where issues of international law and jurisdiction were fascinatingly sidelined in the face of the might that is the Russian Federation.

The Arctic Sunrise’s mission was to protest against an oil rig in the Arctic circle, the footage of which is terrifying. Greenpeace’s cameras show pieces of the rig swallowed by the icy depths, as monstrous waves climb up the walls of the shaking rig in a typical Arctic storm.

The Sunrise was intercepted by the Russian coastguard, who, despite being in international waters in close contact with an unarmed group, came close to firing upon the Greenpeace vessel and subsequently imprisoned its entire crew. The activists were detained for three months in a Russian prison.

Only an outcry from international dignitaries eventually swayed the Kremlin enough to release the Greenpeace members. Watching the crew’s circumstances is an absolutely harrowing experience, even as an audience member, and it is hard not to feel roused by the time the credits roll. The courage and conviction shown by each activist is inspiring.

The underlying message of both films is clear, and resonates now more than ever: it is up to the the environmental filmmakers and Greenpeaces of the world to take a stand against the incumbent Goliaths.

And sometimes, when you stand up for something long enough and if you work hard enough, you can win.

Learn more about Defendant 5 here and learn more about Black Ice here.

Originally from Hong Kong, Christieanna Ozorio is a Juris Doctor student at the Melbourne Law School.

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