Documentaries

Wild Australia: Five Amazing Australian Nature Documentaries

There are so many great nature documentaries out there that it’s hard to choose just one to immerse yourself in on a lazy weekend afternoon. Below are some great picks from the team at Wild Melbourne for those stormy spring days. All are based in Australia and, in one way or another, celebrate the nature around our nation.

The Dingo: Wild Dog At War

One topic that seems common amongst many Australian nature documentaries is both the threat and the plight of the dingo. Narrated by sheep farmer and dog trainer David Graham, The Dingo: Wild Dog At War explores the idea that there may be a way to control dingoes to protect Australian farmland, although without wiping the species out. This is a great introduction to the origins of the dingo species – how did they get here and why are they so demonised? As Graham explains: ‘Dingoes can ruin your day. They can run you right out of business.’ However, they are also surviving as any predator would: killing livestock that are easy pickings for this wild and unique predator. A fascinating documentary about how Australian culture treats the dingo and how we might begin to live alongside this species rather than against them.

5 Seasons

View the trailer here. 

Focusing on the experiences of the Numurindi people of South East Arnhemland, this film depicts the vital and intricate relationship between the Numurindi culture and ‘all things past and present’. The title alludes to the five seasons of their calendar, in comparison to the two very distinct seasons of Western society: ‘the wet and the dry.’ The spiritual connection between nature, the seasons and the Numurindi people is portrayed powerfully throughout, representing the moving idea that ‘everything has a cycle, and we are guided by this cycle’. Taking the viewer through a year of the five seasons, senior custodian Moses Numamurdirdi provides a rare insight into both the beautiful and frightening aspects of the Australian wild.

Battle in the Bush

For a short documentary, this film packs a lot of punch with its ideas about species reintroduction and the negative perceptions surrounding the ‘wild dog’. A very recent release, this film explores the idea of utilising Tasmanian devils as a possible solution to the impacts that invasive species such as foxes and cats are having on our native wildlife. Created by award-winning filmmaker and ecologist Daniel Hunter, the film also explores Australia’s complex relationship with the often-misunderstood dingo and is being premiered now around the country, including at our Wild Melbourne seminar night this Friday

Cane Toads: The Conquest

This weirdly captivating documentary depicts the Australian cane toad crisis in all its infamy and quirkiness. Whilst portraying the scary reality of the ways in which this resilient creature has taken over nearly a third of the country, it also explores the unusual human behaviours that have evolved as a result. Although some encourage an inhumane treatment of this non-native pest, the film includes discussions of how to humanely eradicate them. It also features footage of those unusual few that keep the toad as a pet, as well as a man whose trade involves some very strange taxidermy. An intriguing introduction to the current plight of Australia at the hands of this amphibian, this doco is easily accessible for those of us with Netflix.

Oddball

Although not strictly a documentary, this family-oriented film is based on the true story of a maremma sheepdog called Oddball. Originally trained to guard the chickens of owner Allan “Swampy” Marsh, Oddball went on to protect the little penguins of Middle Island. Following what journalists described as a fox massacre of the local penguin population, Swampy was able to convince authorities to allow Oddball onto the previously dog-free island in order to protect native wildlife. This one is a fun and light-hearted film, but doesn’t fail to depict the interesting relationship between a charismatic sheepdog and his feathered friends.

Predators, Films and Science: A Conversation with Dan Hunter

Nearly every ecologist across the world has, at one stage or another, had a moment in the field where they had the thought – “I wish I’d filmed that!” Or perhaps had David Attenborough’s voice going through their head whilst observing a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

For University of New South Wales ecologist and film-maker Daniel Hunter, science and film go hand in hand. He explains: “The interesting thing about science journal papers is that they’re basically a good film script in disguise. They have an introduction (or a hook), a body and a conclusion (or ending).” As Dan reiterates, the marriage of the two disciplines is perhaps even more true for ecologists: “We often work in places that people dream about as holiday destinations, carrying out fieldwork with beautiful critters and plants at the most spectacular times of the day. Why not take a camera and record some of this, record the sounds, record the animals, capture the scenes, the moments and share them?”

Ecologist and natural history filmmaker Dan Hunter. Photo: Ed Sloane

Ecologist and natural history filmmaker Dan Hunter. Photo: Ed Sloane

With what Dan refers to as a “growing disconnect between scientists and the public,” starting his PhD was the perfect opportunity to go about rectifying the problem. According to Dan, it’s a serious problem. He expands: “The ‘public’ make policy decisions and are the ones affected by research outcomes so we, as scientists, have an obligation to ensure that our research is communicated clearly and effectively… using multiple communication methods.”

Dan’s research focuses on the importance of apex predators, such as the dingo, in structuring ecosystems through the reduction in numbers of herbivores and smaller predators. Whilst Dan’s findings mirror what is being observed elsewhere in Australia, they are no less important. In fact, Dan’s observations from his study area in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area were the catalyst for his new film. It turns out that “the mere presence of dingoes benefits small and medium mammal abundance and vegetation complexity so strongly that I just had to share these findings as far and wide as possible,” he says.

Naturally, given Dan’s background as a natural history filmmaker, a documentary was the best way to do this. “Essentially it is a film about the role of predators, the decline of Australia’s mammals and rewilding,” says Dan. “The story explores the role of dingoes in forests…. However, dingoes are persecuted because of the threat they pose to livestock and, as a consequence, our native mammal species are losing out in areas where dingoes have become functionally extinct.”

Dan Hunter says predators are vital for maintaining balance in ecosystems such as this. Photo: Dan Hunter

Dan Hunter says predators are vital for maintaining balance in ecosystems such as this. Photo: Dan Hunter

Given the film is based on his research, the story fell together quite neatly: “The process of piecing it all together was very organic because it is about my research which is something I know intimately well.” However, there were some challenges: “The tricky part for me, was making sure that it did not detract from the key message and was a sound piece of science communication. That meant not using too much jargon, keeping a good rhythm and using cinematography to maintain the attention of viewers.”

Throughout the filming process, Dan was continually reminded of the dire state of Australia’s mammals and the ineffectiveness of a business-as-usual approach to threatened species conservation. “Our current management (mainly, poison baiting with 1080) is short-sighted, unsustainable and costly,” says Dan. “We need to consider restoring dingoes to functional densities to tackle foxes and cats and where this is untenable for farmers we need to explore the option of bringing in devils as a surrogate at the very least.”

For many ecologists, reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil to mainland Australia (where it existed approximately 500 years ago) is not a new idea. “My supervisor and I discussed the idea of modelling Tasmanian Devil reintroduction to help mitigate some of the cat and fox carnage in forests,” he explains. “Although I don’t discuss the modelling in the film, I do go to Tasmania and interview some devil experts to get their thoughts on bringing devils back to the mainland.”

So, how can ecologists and other scientifically minded people convince policy makers to take a leap and return devils to the mainland? “Conduct quality research, disseminate the findings in a clear and effective way and begin the conversation,” says Dan. But unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that: “Farmers will want to know what the potential damage to their stock will be, conservationists will want to know if devils are going to do more bad then good, Tasmanians are going to want to be assured they will still have a tourism industry if they share their State emblem with Victoria and New South Wales. These are all legitimate concerns that scientists and others will need to address before any reintroduction takes place.”

However, Dan thinks we’re well on the way, explaining that “the first step is the hardest and I think we’re pretty close.”

Battle in the Bush premieres in Sydney in mid-June, with screenings in Melbourne and Geelong to follow soon after. Dan is on the lookout for venues to host screenings, so readers should get in touch if they can help. The film will also be available for purchase very soon.

All information related to Battle in the Bush can be found HERE and to read Wild Melbourne's review of the film, head HERE

An Extraordinary Life on Earth

Sir David Attenborough: A name that is synonymous with nature, and wildlife filmmaking. He may well be the primary source of biological knowledge for many of the general public, and you would be hard pressed to find another living human who has not heard his name. For decades, he has brought the natural world into our living rooms with amazing, new, and breathtaking images of animals, plants, and our planet’s diverse ecosystems. He is undoubtedly responsible for inspiring many of us to follow dreams of studying the natural world, as well as fostering an appreciation for nature in those who would not otherwise have taken an interest. So, when I heard that Sir David was coming to Melbourne with his show ‘A Life on Earth’, I didn’t think twice about purchasing myself a ticket.

The air was buzzing with excitement when I arrived at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Everyone was eager to see the man himself, the man who had brought delight and wonder into their homes for so many fulfilling years. Sitting down in our seats, eager for the show to begin; I could feel the anticipation within the room growing as more people filed in. I felt fortunate to be there. I couldn’t believe that I would soon be in the same room as the great Sir David Attenborough. Adding to my appreciation was the fact that the show had been rescheduled from three weeks earlier as Sir David had fallen ill. Thankfully, he recovered, and the show would go on.

The lights dimmed till only the stage was bathed in a warm low light. The entire hall instantly fell silent, all eyes trained on the stage curtain in eagerness and expectation. The curtains finally parted and almost instantly there was a thunderous, excited applause for the revealed Sir David.

Ray Martin then appeared and set the tone of the night asking Sir David questions pertaining to his extraordinary ‘Life on Earth’. It began with his meagre beginnings in publishing. From there he moved to producing television programs for the then just born BBC. That’s right, Sir David was around before television.

Attenborough spoke of the early days in television with humour. He discussed his first animal program ‘Zoo Quest’, a series which centred around the search for the Bald-Headed Rock Crow (Picathartes gymnocephalus), but also involved encounters with other exotic animals before finally finding the rare bird. The search to find the Komodo Dragon was another amazing tale. It involved cannibals, hostile tribes, and some shady boat captains plotting to steal camera equipment from under his nose. Fortunately for the viewing public, the camera equipment was not stolen. The footage that they obtained of the Komodo Dragon was the first footage of this terrifying and mysterious species. As always, Sir David’s warm and informative tone held the attention of the entire audience; it seemed everybody was hanging off his every word. I was in awe.

sir-david-attenborough-3.jpg

Sir David’s ability to make almost any topic interesting is proven by the next instalment in this thrilling and entertaining night. He presented his dilemma of determining how much sex or violence is, or was, allowable for television. To bring the audience right in, a segment of Attenborough’s series ‘The Trials of Life’ was shown. Brilliant footage of Chimpanzees co-operatively hunting Colobus Monkeys, again a first for nature filmmaking and photography, stunned the audience. What ensued during the ‘raid’ is horrifying and amazing; a group of the chimps captured an individual Colobus Monkey and proceeded to consume its still living, squirming body. The footage is renowned for its brutality and violence. Attenborough reasoned that, although it is a difficult scene to watch, violence is a part of nature, and to cut it out would mean losing the sense of objectivity that is so crucial to studying the natural world. He went on to explain that he chose to show the footage in his series ‘The Trials of Life’ because it demonstrated the intelligence of the Chimpanzees, in that they orchestrated a coordinated hunt, unique and amazing behaviour. Indeed, he argued that this display demonstrated the ability to work as team so crucial to the survival of not only the Chimpanzees, but our own species.

Another clip that was shown was a segment of footage from ‘Galapagos 3D’, showing Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island Tortoise. Pinta Island Tortoises were previously found on the Island of Pinta, a member of the Galapagos Islands. This species of tortoise was previously common on Pinta Island, but due to excessive hunting this amazing species was wiped out. Lonesome George was found to be the last remaining Pinta Island Tortoise in 1971. Since his discovery, he acted as an ambassador for endangered species everywhere. Attenborough used Lonesome George as an example of the plight of all species on planet Earth, in regards to human impact on the environment. He eloquently drew the audience’s attention to the fragility of our natural world, and our responsibility to protect it.

Before the show commenced, members of the audience had the opportunity to submit a question that they wished to ask. Towards the end of the evening Sir David answered five of these questions. I myself submitted the question: “as someone who is passionate about conserving our environment, how do you recommend that we communicate our passion and enthusiasm with others?” Alas, my question was not selected. Those that were included topics such as favourite insects, extinct animals to be brought back from extinction, and tarsiers. Then a question from fellow science communicator Brian Cox was presented. Cox inquired whether Attenborough was optimistic about our planet’s future considering the rejection of Darwinism by certain schools of thought. Attenborough responded that the dangers that we are facing are man made, and that population growth is an enormous threat to the natural world. Attenborough went on to say that you have to do what you can to spread the message, and that it’s easier to deny it than to do something about it. With luck, slowly the tide will turn.

The evening came to an end with footage of a variety of animals and landscapes accompanied by Attenborough speaking the lyrics to ‘What a Wonderful World’. It was the perfect conclusion for a night filled with stories, experiences, and an amazing life from our ‘wonderful world’. The hall swelled with emotion, and as Sir David Attenborough bowed, waved, and walked off stage, there was a standing ovation.

For me, the night will be an enduring, happy memory. For Sir David, his legacy will last the ages: the great communicator who changed the way people everywhere view the natural world. Truly, his ‘life on earth’ has been a life well spent. Myself, and all the Wild Melbourne crew, wish him all the best for his future work. We could think of few things more worthwhile.

 

 

Images from: lateralevents.com