Sydney-based filmmaker Eddy Bell took a weekend trip to a polocrosse event in Narrabri, New South Wales. It became an 18-month journey with a farming family facing the harsh reality of unrelenting drought. Eddy witnessed their luscious green landscape evolve into an arid dust bowl, and the result is his short film ‘Giants’. While empathising with traditional Australian farmers caught between debt and devastation, Eddy points a hard finger at the influential public figures who deny climate change. In this poignant and beautifully shot film, Eddy’s omnipresent giants – part of the Kaputar mountain range – serve as his call to action for modern approaches to sustainable farming.
In June 2018, Eddy took a call from his school friend Steven ’Stegs’ Rees, a school counsellor and cattle farmer in Narrabri, NSW. It was a Thursday.
Stegs said: “We’ve got a polocrosse event this weekend, at the end of our property. Five hundred cowboys are coming with their farm horses to ride around in the dust. You should just come out here and shoot something. Everyone’s doing it tough with the drought, so the event’s kind of important as it brings the community together.”
Eddy said: “Sorry mate, I don’t think I can do it. We’re shooting an ad for the government next week.”
The same day Eddy received a short story from friend and actor Luke Mulquiney. It was about a farmer contemplating suicide after his family had left him. The planets were aligning. Eddy called Stegs.
“Right! We’re coming this weekend!”
On Friday at 4.00am Eddy wrote a scene:
A man and a woman are separately looking for something, in the middle of this crazy polocrosse game. You don’t know what they’re doing but we cut between them, and eventually you learn that they’re looking for their daughter. They’re about to send her to her grandparents because there is no food at home.
Eddy called Kieran Fowler, the DOP working with him on the ad the following week, and asked: “Kieran, can we take the lenses from the commercial next week, and shoot this thing in the dust? I don’t really know what we are going to make yet.”
Eddy called actress Emma Jackson. Did she want to do something mad and make a film this weekend? Yep, she was in.
On Saturday before daybreak the four of them (and a small crew) loaded their gear into two cars and drove seven hours north west to arrive smack in the middle of the polocrosse event. According to Eddy, it was a director’s worst nightmare.
“You arrive at the location, everyone gets out of the car and says: So, what are we doing? You say: I don’t know. I’m just going to walk around a bit and make a plan.”
In the commotion Eddy found Stegs.
“Stegs is wrangling people to be in the film for us. We’re asking him: Can we borrow that person’s Land Cruiser? Can we have a horse? Do you mind doing some polocrosse in the background? Before you know it, we’ve got this scene in the middle of this public event!”
The next day they filmed in the cattle yards on Stegs’ parents’ property. It was during the worst part of the drought, and the land was nothing but dry dirt. With footage of Luke and the cattle, the crew headed back to Sydney.
“We got shots of Luke working with the cattle, and we didn’t know how it was going to fit. But the footage from that first trip – the polocrosse and the scene where he shoots his cattle and walks off the property – that became the end of ‘Giants’.”
Eddy decided they needed footage to show life before the drought.
“I’d get on the phone to Stegs, ‘Hey mate, any rain out there? How’s your dad going?’ We just went on the journey with them. Over the next 12 months they only had 5mm of rain. They would have a little bit of rain but then the crops would die as the drought kicked back in. We went back out there and filmed textural shots during this time, but always felt we needed more to tell the story. Finally there was some decent rain, it was green out there, and we went back and shot the beginning of the film.”
By the end, nine days’ of footage was captured over the 18 months. The end of the film was created first, followed by the opening scenes. Finally they were able to make the middle.
“Kieran came with me 4 times and another DOP Alex Serafini came 2 times. I went out 7 times. The last shoot took five days. We needed to shoot some scenes indoors so we took out gaffers, and a minimalist crew, on that last go.”
GIANTS. A MAN AND A WOMAN LYING TOE-TO-TOE
“The first time we went to the paddocks, Stegs’ dad pointed out the mountains of the Kaputar range. He said, to his family, they look like giants – a man and a woman, sleeping on their backs. After that, I felt their presence everywhere we went on that property. We backlight most of our shots when we’re working with natural light, and the mountains are east of the property, so they are in the back of every shot. Those giants were so present, not only to the family that live there, but also to our crew while we were making the film.”
As he contemplated the giants overlooking the changing landscape, Eddy knew that climate change and the generational responsibility to farm sustainably would be a key message of his film.
THE PLIGHT OF FARMERS
Eddy explained that RSPCA laws prevent cattle from being transported once they are too weak to stand, so a farmer has to make the call when to move them in a drought. In ‘Giants’, the farmer refuses to make that call.
“My farmer is a flawed character. He makes decisions that put pressure on his family. He should have sold those cattle. I think it’s ego, not wanting to be the first in his family to fail, that makes him hold on. These are really difficult decisions. It reminds me of the predicament of people playing a pokie machine. Through no fault of their own, farmers in a drought have to make the same kinds of decisions: do I pull out now and lose it all, or do I hold on for just one more week and maybe it will rain and everything will be alright?” The banks take a lot of flack for encouraging lending but so does the government for not incentivising more sustainable practices, Eddy added.
Eddy described the downward spiral farmers in that situation can face.
“The banks tell the farmers: ‘We’ll give you more money, hold on another week, feed the cattle.’ Those feed bills can go up to $100,000 a month. The farmers say to me: ‘Once you start feeding, those cattle they don’t go Moo, they go MORE! MORE!’ The cattle will just keep yelling for food in the yards, and you can hear them through your windows. Inescapable. You’re not going to be able to sell them, you are just keeping your breeding stock alive, so that $100,000 a month is not recoupable. Breeding stock are cattle that have been in the family for generations. To be the one to go out and shoot the herd must be crushing.”
Eddy’s farmer – who is played by Luke – is often filmed framed inside a fence. When outside, he often has foreground elements that ‘fence him off’.
“I must have seen it in the rushes. Luke was doing some fencing, and I thought that sectioning him off in that way could thematically represent the old-fashioned and even colonialist idea of acquiring land, fencing it off and claiming: ‘This is mine, I bought it and I’m going to profit from it.’ I think the way of the future is to look at cultures, indigenous cultures for one, that have a better symbiotic relationship with the land. My generation of farmers are already thinking much more about sustainable farming practices. The older generation are also coming round to the idea that you can’t just intensively farm one piece of land, whether it is crop or cattle. You have to factor in regeneration and a holistic approach to keep Mother Nature in balance.”
Eddy said his farmer is initially a climate denialist, and believes in doing things the way they have always been done, because the droughts always break. He added that people like former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott often cite a poem called ‘My Country’, which was written in 1908. It says:
I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains
Of rugged mountain ranges
Of drought and flooding rains
“Politicians use this poem to say that Australia has always been a land of drought and flooding rains. When politicians claim we don’t have a problem with climate change or extreme weather events because they are mentioned in this poem from 100 years ago, I think that is absurd.”
Luke’s VO cites lines from that poem which reassure him. But at the end of the film, he says: They say the droughts are not deeper, the floods are not bigger and the bushfires are not worse. But I wonder what our giants think.
Luke’s words are taken from Tony Abbott’s speech about global warming.1
‘Giants’ was written and directed by Eddy Bell. Story by Eddy Bell and Luke Mulquiney. Produced by Nonny Klaile, Steven Rees and Luke Mulquiney. Director of Photography Kieran Fowler. 2nd Unit Director of Photography Alex Serafini.
1“Contrary to the breathless assertions that climate change is behind every weather event, in Australia, the floods are not bigger, the bushfires are not worse, the droughts are not deeper or longer, and the cyclones are not more severe than they were in the 1800s. Sometimes, they do more damage but that’s because there’s more to destroy, not because their intensity has increased. More than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen despite frequent reports from climate alarmists that this is imminent.”