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The Giants

Filled with gorgeous forest cinematography, this rousing documentary celebrates former Greens senator Bob Brown and the landscape that he's spent five decades fighting to protect.
By Sarah Ward
April 20, 2023
By Sarah Ward
April 20, 2023

Nature documentaries rarely simply spy the earth's wonders, point cameras that way and let the planet itself do the talking. Instead, films such as 2017's The Ancient Woods are by far the exception rather than the rule. And yet, the best footage within any movie about our pale blue dot makes viewers wish that more favoured the "a picture is worth a thousand words" approach. Take The Giants, for instance. When it includes talk, which is often, it's no lesser a feature. The conversation and commentary offered is illuminating, in fact. But when it wanders through Tasmania's colossal foliage within the Styx Valley, Southern Forests and the Tarkine, which is also regularly, it feels like it barely needs to utter a single thing. This isn't merely a factual affair about flora, with environmental campaigner and pioneering former Greens senator Bob Brown firmly at its core, but The Giants knows that paying tribute to both is best done by staring at leafy surroundings as much as it can.

It's no everyday feat to get a movie-watching audience admiring the natural world while peering at a screen, even if the frequency with which David Attenborough's docos arrive has helped everyone both think and expect otherwise. Indeed, notching up that achievement is a mammoth accomplishment on the part of The Giants' filmmakers Laurence Billiet (Freeman) and Rachel Antony, plus cinematographer Sherwin Akbarzadeh (Carbon — The Unauthorised Biography). Crucially, it assists what was always going to be a fascinating ode to bloom as much as any plant that it waters with attention. When you're crafting a documentary that intertwines a love letter to Australia's ancient native forests and their ecosystems with a powerful portrait of a hefty figure who has devoted much of his life to fighting for them, showing all the green splendour it possibly can is equally a must and a masterstroke.

A doctor who turned politician after first establishing roots in Tasmania's environmental movement in the 70s, Brown has spent many of his years either around or battling for The Giants' woody namesakes. The film tells that tale, plus more before it, deploying the familiar birth-to-now doco format. Thanks to its human subject, aka the movie's other giant, it's a greatly inspiring story — one that on its own, assembling the usual archival photos, news clips, home videos and talking heads, is a hearty piece of motivation to follow in Brown's activist footsteps. As an interviewee, he adds insights about his experiences, dreams and goals, and the way that Australia's lavish landscape has been treated. Among those joining him: his twin sister Jan, partner Paul Thomas, successor as Greens leader Christine Milne and current Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

Brown was born to a family of police officers, but enforcing the law wasn't his calling, as The Giants steps through. His closeness with his mother also earns the spotlight, as does the way that nature provided solace and excitement from his early years onwards. The decision to study medicine, his struggles with his homosexuality, his shift to Australia's southernmost state, the first sprouts of his passionate crusading and his move into politics are all covered, as are his stint fasting on top of Mt Wellington to protest the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise sailing into Hobart, the jump to the federal level and interrupting US President George W Bush's 2003 speech to Australian parliament. There's no surprise that the film needs 112 minutes to fit all of the above in and more, like Brown's status as the first out gay man in parliament, and also to highlight the breathtaking beauty that's been Australia's for millennia.

On-screen as in away from the cinema, don't ever underestimate the impact that trees can and do make. Here, in a picture that starts with 100-metre-tall eucalypts regnans that dwarf dinosaurs, and similarly heroes Huon pines and Tasmanian myrtle beech, majestic rainforests and the gargantuan plants within them make a rousing and riveting documentary even better. The arresting imagery would bring to mind Peter Dombrovskis' famous photography of the Apple Isle's Franklin River — specifically Rock Island Bend, as captured in a snap that's widely credited with saving the waterway — even if it wasn't given a shoutout. Courtesy of the University of Tasmania's Terra Luma research project, 3D forest scans dazzle as well, as turned into surreal and striking cloud animation by Alex Le Guillou.

As much as roving one's eyes over the wilderness speaks for itself, The Giants gets chatting to deepen viewers' understanding of nature's marvels. Accordingly, an appreciation of algae and mushrooms also springs — 2023 is the unofficial year of the fungus on screens big and small, after all, given that it's a year that's seen both The Last of Us and The Super Mario Bros Movie become hits. Regardless of how popular spore-producing organisms are in pop culture right now, knowledge about their pivotal function is a call to act within Billiet and Antony's film. The Giants also gleans that explaining what's threatened by logging, damming and climate change, especially while showing it in intricate and impressive detail, is a stirring way to encourage viewers to do their part for the cause.

It's one thing to ask people to make an effort to make a difference when the movie stops rolling, whatever their personal version of facing deforestation, bulldozers, expansive mining operations and the like is. It's another to demonstrate that playing a part for the planet can and does bring about change, as Brown's life story epitomises. He has the right words to stress the case as well, whether he's noting that "there is nothing a small group of people can't do when the idea they're espousing's time has come" or championing civil disobedience as obedience to nature — and, yes, aiding with justifying why the film isn't solely gorgeous shots of tremendous trees. The Giants has the right overview of his five-decade impact to go with it, alongside all that wondrous forest footage that says everything, including that the living world in the 21st century always needs all the help that it can make blossom.

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