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May 10, 2021

Beautiful films that inspire us to nurture nature

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Deep listening and housing ideas under Mullum’s fig trees for Renew Fest

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Digby Hildreth

The children and young people pouring out of school and onto the streets are quite aware of what they’re going through – to paraphrase Bowie. They’re mad, and they’re not going to take it any more.

And who could blame them? Their future is burning up, and BBFF shares their outrage. Over the years the festival has given primacy to some important, game-changing environmental films. Frackman and The Bentley Effect had their world premieres at the festival in 2015 and 2016, as did Our Power last year. Last year BBFF also screened Undermined – Tales from the Kimberley and closed with the international premiere of Sharkwater – Extinction, about the tireless activist Rob Stewart.

This year, four compelling documentaries deal with eco-concerns in corners of the world that aren’t seen much in the news, where Mother Nature is on the run: Macedonia, Kenya, British Columbia and Baja California.

They tell the story of how bees, the northern white rhino, salmon and the landscape itself are being compromised by the intrusions of the modern world – by human greed, ignorance and neglect.

Ironically, it is the human element in all of these stories that brings some light into what might otherwise seem unbearably sad, balancing the wrongs with glimpses of the indefatigable human spirit that sparks optimism. 

The last male northern white rhinoceros, Sudan, with one of his protectors in Kifaru.

In nearly every scene in Kifaru, the camera includes Jacob and Jojo, the rangers at the Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy in central Kenya who care for and protect Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros, who is dying of old age.

Their devotion to their families – and the huge, lumbering animals they talk to and tickle like kittens – their daily routines, and growing anxiety about a loss of livelihood, make Kifaru into a compelling real-life drama. The audience is drawn in to face the full emotional weight of the loss, the terrible cost of extinction. 

But the men’s decency and dedication – their humanity – makes the film shine. Beautiful people working in a beautiful landscape, they offer hope that the best in us will prevail. They are also pioneers of an evolving practice in conservation, incorporating local concerns and prosperity into wildlife protection – a new twist on the age-old interdependence of humanity and the rest of nature.

Salmon are in trouble in British Columbia, as seen in Guardian.

That interdependence is powerfully real in the role that salmon play along the coast of British Columbia: as well as underpinning the ecosystem, their existence provides the backbone of the region’s economy and culture. But they are disappearing, despite the life-long commitment of the men and women who for more than a century have monitored them in the state’s Great Bear Rainforest. Their service is honoured in the feature documentary Guardian.

The region is one of the last pristine frontiers of the world, and the film is visually stunning. Forests growing on sheer granite cliffs, plunging waterfalls, streams and rivers, home to bears, eagles and the fish that feed them. Mining and development threaten this Edenic landscape; the short-term gains given precedence over permanent consequences. 

Courtney Quinn’s film, character-driven but with nature as the presiding genius, is poignant and poetic, an exquisite elegy, and an indictment of an officialdom that censors science and sanctions soaring natural resource development.


The clash between the co-operation with nature – knowledgeable, respectful, sustainable – and market forces is key to a dramatic storyline in Honeyland, set in the mountains of North Macedonia, when the study of Europe’s last female bee-hunter is rudely interrupted by an unexpected intrusion. Hatidze has lived all her life in this rugged landscape, abandoned now but for her, her ailing mother, a dog, and the bees she ‘farms’.

Cheerful and uncomplaining, she works hard under bleak, bitter conditions to keep her mother fed and warm.

Hatidze’s beehives provide both food and income, and she cherishes them using ancient, time-proven methods. She is profoundly familiar with the bees’ habits and needs, singing to them and handling them without being stung. Life is tough but predictable, until a feral family of nomadic of cattle farmers sets up home nearby. She shares her beekeeping knowledge with them, but the feckless dad ignores her advice and yields to market forces. It’s not long before the chainsaw comes out – in a telling scene that speaks to the destructiveness and exploitative power of the profit motive the world over.

Honeyland was awarded the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2019. It drips, like warm golden honey, with an intimate, melancholy beauty, while offering a forlorn commentary on capitalism’s approach to the natural world.

The fate of the many natural wonders of Baja California, and its unique historical legacy, are the subject of An Island in the Continent, a reverential, concerned look at the 1300km-long peninsula, and a metaphor for what is happening in the world.

A scene from An Island in the Continent.

The Baja is a mythological and magical land, with a unique flora and wildlife and cultural history, with extraordinary cave paintings quite unlike the Inca ancestry of the rest of Mexico.

The film moves from the poetic, to the concrete, with damning environmental and social revelations, to the contemplative, taking in mountains, desert, ocean, and the extraordinary cave art of past civilisations.

Beside these four feature-length films, the festival is screening several short ‘environmental’ works, including Mystique Sequence, about the coast at Montauk in the US; surviving, and thriving, on an e-dump in Ghana (Kofi and Lartey); how the Bininj people of Kakadu balance diversity (Firekeepers of Kakadu) as well as Reclamation: The Rise at Standing Rock, and Rio Sagrado – films showing the natural magnificence of the planet, and the efforts of good people everywhere to preserve it.

A still from Planet Fungi – North East India. Photo Stephen Axford

Another film, made by the well-known Northern Rivers filmmaker Catherine Marciniak, also gives cause for joy. The people of India love their mushrooms, and Planet Fungi – North East India provides an uplifting insight into the astonishing variety of the versatile organisms.

Byron Bay Film Festival runs from October 18–27. For program and ticket details, visit www.bbff.com.au

More on Byron Bay Film Festival 2019

Women destroy the joint in diverse BBFF dramas

Ukraine has been in the headlines more than usual lately, in a situation that would challenge even the satirical skills of its comic actor-turned-president Volodymyr Zeleniskiy, in dialogue with some other real-life clown. But there’s nothing funny about the ugly war that has been simmering in the east of the country since the height of the violence in 2014–15, and which provides the backdrop for a surprisingly gentle romance – Julia Blue – screening at this year’s festival.


Locals enriched by exploration of wide, wild world

As much as possible, Northern Rivers filmmakers are included in the BBFF programme, invited to talk about their work, share screenings with their friends and family, and welcomed to the rich and fertile networking events that occur over the 10 days.


Weaving, Leunig among the stars on screen at BBFF

Digby Hildreth With just four weeks to go until the Byron Bay Film Festival’s Red Carpet Gala Opening, excitement is mounting over the stunning selection of dramas, documentaries, short films, workshops and virtual reality experiences on offer. Actors, directors, and film...


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