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On New Year’s Ever in 2019, filmmaker Ash Brennan lost his house in the Conjola Park Bushfire which nearly killed his brother and many others who stayed to fight.
From a Perth hotel room Ash saw the first image of what used to be his house in the background of a news reporter.
After almost being wiped off the map, a traumatised community waited for help. But it never came.
Conjola was abandoned and left for dead.
Local artists then started creating. They needed to heal. It gave the community hope and solidified their journey to recovery, together.
Here, Ash writes exclusively for Cinema Australia about what drove him to make We Are Conjola, and the community that inspired his journey.
“What became apparent to me was that these local artists were dealing with their trauma through their art.”
Written by We Are Conjola director Anthony Ash Brennan
New Year’s eve 2019.
The height of Australia’s Black Summer of bushfire.
On that day, on the NSW South Coast, a fire came from seemingly nowhere and all but wiped out the picturesque village of Lake Conjola.
In Conjola Park, on the western edge of the lake, 89 homes were lost.
One of those houses was mine.
Fortunately for me, I wasn’t there when the fire front hit. I was on the other side of the country, waiting for news from my brother and his wife who also live in Conjola Park. Early afternoon I received a ten second video of them and their dog Bundy in a boat, fleeing the flames.
On New Year’s day, I first saw the ruins of my house in the background of a Channel 9 news report.
It was confronting to see images of burnt out houses in my street and our traumatised community on international news services such as the BBC and CNN.
The world found out about our beautiful area for all the wrong reasons.
By the grace of God, amongst the rows of houses that now lay in ruin, my brothers house survived, albeit a little crisp around the edges.
His house became something of a meeting point for the “Conjola refugees”, which we called them.
I met with my neighbour Adam at my brother’s property a few weeks after the fire. He and his wife lost everything. Their house and Adam’s life’s work of sculptures, paintings, and tools were all gone.
“Ash, I just need to start creating again so I can begin to heal,” Adam told me.
That really stuck with me.
At the same time, Steffo, another neighbour of mine, started writing some beautiful poetry and posting it on the Conjola Recovery Facebook page.
Penny, a well known Conjola artist also starting painting.
What became apparent to me was that these local artists were dealing with their trauma through their art.
What I didn’t expect was how they inspired the community to also turn to art to begin their pathway to recovery.
The non-artists in the community instinctively started writing poetry, music and painting to make sense of what had happened.
As a filmmaker I’d been thinking about making a film about the fire. I’d been running around filming everything since I returned. But I didn’t want to make just another bushfire documentary. I wanted a different angle.
It didn’t take me long to realise my angle was right in front of me: A community’s recovery through art.
Once I began pre-production on my original idea, the community, who had previously shut the doors to a few film producers, came to me wanting me to tell their bushfire story.
I immediately felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. But I thought it was important that a historical document be made of the events of New Year’s Eve 2019.
With the local connections and support, I was confident I could tell the story better than any outsiders.
But there were a few issues I faced straight away.
Firstly, Covid had just hit so principal photography was pushed back indefinitely. This was a problem as there was only a small window of opportunity to interview the community as they were still suffering from trauma. I also wanted to shoot whilst the landscape was black.
Secondly, how was I going to thread my artist stories amongst the horror of a bushfire?
Thirdly, where was i going to get the money?
I knew this project would get the financial backing it deserved, so I began shooting interviews in May 2020.
I gave myself a few guidelines to follow:
1. Give the community a voice and tell the story that the community wanted told;
2. Make the viewer understand what it feels like to be in a bushfire and the lingering psychological effects following this traumatic experience;
3. Ask ourselves our expectations of our emergency services before, during, and after a disaster;
4. Examine the value of art in trauma recovery.
As there was no news footage of the Conjola fire, I had to rely on eyewitness phone footage to tell the story.
After a call out via various social media pages, I was inundated with high quality, vivid photos and videos from locals and holiday makers who were caught in the disaster.
It took five months of shooting, driving down the coast every few weeks. But our small crew captured unbelievable harrowing, resilient and inspirational stories.
To my disappointment, I didn’t qualify for any formal funding to produce this film.
A crowd funding campaign was launched through Documentary Australia Foundation.
Through DAF, about 50% of the funds needed, was raised. Convoy of Hope, Milton Ulladulla Rotary Club and Culture Bank Wollongong were among the contributors.
Though, it needs to be said that 80% of the money raised was donated by those of us who lost our houses. Making this project very special.
I had to pull some favours, cut some corners and a few people donated their time and talents.
One such donation of talent is the opening title sequence produced in Los Angeles by visual fx artist Barry Safley whose credits include Star Wars, Star Trek and Independence Day. Coincidentally, Barry was living on the NSW South Coast at the time of the fire and after we met, he kindly donated his services.
On December, 31 2020, exactly one year after the fire, We Are Conjola was complete.
To say the film was a very personal project is an understatement. Its been said to me that I was using my art form to try and make sense of it. Whether that’s true or not, I’ll admit that the whole process was incredibly emotional for me. I still have trouble keeping a dry eye when talking about it.
I was very nervous about the community’s reaction to the film, and I was worried that the film would trigger locals emotionally.
The exact opposite has happened.
From all reports, the film has given locals some closure and has justified their trauma. Some are reporting that the film has even helped them to sleep better at night.
In January 2021, I had the pleasure of sitting in a cinema in Ulladulla with the locals at a sold out screening of We Are Conjola.
Hearing the audience gasp, laugh, and to see their tears, followed by a standing ovation is something I will never forget.
The film has since gone on to win international film festival awards. A great achievement for what I call our little backyard film.
But nothing is as good as knowing that our film has helped the community heal.
“Job done,” as my late father, Ray, would say.
We Are Conjola will be screening as part of the 6th Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. The festival runs from the 1st -31st July 2021 Online and the 21st – 31st July 2021 In-Cinema at Cinema Nova as part of Documentary Month. Details here.