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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

A Fire Inside

This sensitive and poignant documentary revisits Australia's 2019–20 bushfires, paying tribute to the communities affected and exploring the aftermath.
By Sarah Ward
October 07, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
October 07, 2021
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Some colours only exist in nature, as much as paints, dyes and pixels attempt to pretend otherwise. The raging reds, blazing oranges and burning yellows seen in A Fire Inside's bushfire footage are some such hues — and, away from the safety of a cinema screen, no one should ever want to spy these specific searing tones. They're haunting enough as it is to look at in a movie. Taking up entire frames of on-the-ground footage shot during the summer of 2019–20, they're scorching in their brightness and intensity. This documentary about the national natural disaster just two years ago, when swathes of Australia burned for months, deploys those apocalyptic colours and the imagery containing them sparingly, notably; however, even when they only flicker briefly, those shades aren't easily forgotten.

After everything the pandemic has delivered since the beginning of 2020, just as the 'Black Summer' bushfires were cooling, that chapter of history might seem far longer ago than just a couple of years. A Fire Inside is also an act of remembrance, though. Directors Justin Krook (Machine, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead) and Luke Mazzaferro (a producer on Girls Can't Surf and The Meddler) firmly look backwards, pushing these events back to the top of viewers' memories. That said, they also survey the situation since, as the rebuilding effort has been complicated and elongated by COVID-19. This approach also enables them to survey the lingering aftermath, including the homes that still haven't been rebuilt, the people still residing in makeshift setups, and the emotional and mental toll that's set to dwell for much longer still. Accordingly, what could've merely been a record of a catastrophe becomes a portrait of both survival and resilience.

Unsurprisingly, interviews drive this Australian doco, focusing on people in two camps: the afflicted and the volunteers. Folks in each group chat about their experiences, and the lines between them frequently blur. Firefighter Nathan Barnden provides the first and clearest instance; the film's key early subject, he saved seven strangers and retained his own life in an inferno on the very first night that the fires reached New South Wales' far south coast, but also lost his cousin and uncle to the blazes the same evening. Barnden claims Krook and Mazzaferro's attention for multiple reasons, including his initial youthful eagerness to pick up a hose — following his father, who had done the same — as well as his candour about his distress in the months and now years afterwards. Often overlooked in tales of such events, that kind of emotion sears itself onto the screen with unshakeable power, too.

A Fire Inside spends time with others affected, residents and volunteers alike. RFS captain Brendan O'Connor saved his community, alongside his crew, but suffered in his personal life — and his is just one of the film's stories. Krook and Mazzaferro don't loiter on the same kinds of details over and over again, but whether talking to food bank staff, backpackers helping with re-fencing damaged farms or locals who saw everything they belonged succumb to the flames, the duelling sensations of both endurance and loss remain throughout their doco. The mood: careful, caring, sensitive and poignant. This is a movie that conjures up every sentiment expected, but also one that earns every reaction. Heartbreak and hope seesaw, and recognising that back-and-forth ride is one of the film's canny touches.

Just as astute, and as important, is the question simmering at A Fire Inside's core: why? That query isn't directed at the fires, with their cause naturally receiving oxygen during the movie's discussions, but is instead aimed at everyone who chose to help then and since — no matter on what scale. The answers are complex, which the documentary acknowledges in its format, structure and editing. It lets its lineup of chats all sit side by side, weaving them together and jumping between them, and the effect resembles a filmic mosaic. In interview after interview, the movie doesn't seek to come up with a definitive reason, but to present the range of responses, covering the impulses, thoughts and feelings, as well as the realities behind them.

Tributes to bushfire volunteers and victims have taken many forms since 2019, such as concerts raising money and faces plastered across the Sydney Opera House sails. But A Fire Inside takes those gestures of appreciation to another level — and, as it dives so heartily into the ramifications of assisting during the fires and since, it ensures that all of that gratitude goes hand in hand with recognition. Saluting such selfless acts inherently involves noting them, of course. Still, realising that the toll keeps persisting, that the shock and trauma doesn't instantly subside when the flames are extinguished, and that volunteering is also an act of emotional labour isn't always as innate. A Fire Inside sees that as clearly as it perceives those red, orange and yellow hues, and as acutely as it finds as both grief and inspiration in the ashes.

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