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Journal Article

Petromodernity, the Environment and Historical Film Culture: An Australian Study
Author: Belinda Smaill
Journal: Screen (Forthcoming)

Abstract: This article explores how documentary film culture has supported the expansion of petromodernity in the 20th century. Often not explicitly concerned with advertising petroleum products, “oil films” or “petro-films” are an intriguing and sophisticated example of a public relations agenda that was bound up with cinema history and the pioneering individuals of international documentary movements. Focussing on the Shell Film Unit in Australia (SFUA), this article takes an ecocritical approach, synthesizing methods in film history and environmental history. The 1950s offers a rich and concise periodisation for the discussion—not only was it a crucial nation building moment in Australia, but also a pivotal juncture for recognition of “the environment”—at this time the conventional ecological meaning of this term was taking shape and gaining currency in the centres of the West as a measurable scientific and policy formation. In the 1950s the SFUA produced some of Australia’s most highly acclaimed documentaries, including The Back of Beyond (1954) and The Forerunner (1958) and invested in mobile film units to take cinema to the Australian outback. Shell’s films reached millions of viewers in Australia alone. This article argues that the SFUA’s practices and films recast the natural environment in ways that were specific to the Australian continent, and its topography, and thus facilitated an experience of modernity that was both founded on a relation with nature and bound up with the story of oil.


  • “While there have been important studies of the film practices of, in particular, Shell and British Petroleum, almost none have undertaken detailed critical studies of the relationship between popular knowledge about the natural environment and what I refer to as petrofilm culture (or the institutions, films, personnel and distribution of film produced by oil companies).”
  • “…films produced by the SFUA noted here share an important thematic that is not uniform across films of the time—they ultimately reassure the viewer that the Australian continent and the sites of seemingly unassimilable nature can be safely acculturated.”
  • “We need to examine not only how petro-industries sought to deploy film, but also the resulting films and circulation practices to bring nuance to our knowledge of how industry has used mass culture to shape environmental consciousness over time.”

This research was made possible with a grant from the Australian Research Council
“Remaking the Australian Environment Through Documentary Film and Television” (2019-2021) DP190101178

Journal Article

The View from a Body of Water: Representing Flooding and sea level rise in the South Pacific
Author:  Simon Troon 
Journal: Studies in Documentary Film

Abstract: This article critiques the representation of sea level rise in environmental documentaries, positioning Briar March’s There Once Was an Island: Te Henua e Nnoho (2010) as an essential rejoinder to more prominent representations of oceanic climate change, exemplified in An Inconvenient Truth (2006). An array of recent documentary productions, seeking to draw attention to rising seas and other anthropogenic disasters, turn to the Pacific Ocean utilising a wide range of mediatic regimes and visual apparatuses – from cinematic long takes to satellite imagery and digital animation. Among these films There Once was an Island offers a crucial perspective in its representation of the Takuu atoll, where residents faced with rising seas consider migrating en masse, prioritising subjectivity and physical reality as it foregrounds the cultural, material, and personal specificities of the atoll and its inhabitants. It offers a powerful counterpoint to dominant techniques for visualising climate disaster, which are characterised by spectacular imagery and logics of global mastery. By counterposing the perspectives offered in divergent documentary tendencies and examining their resonance with other cinematic strategies for representing catastrophe, from Hollywood CGI to post-war Italian neorealism, this article works through some ethical considerations for this growing subgenre of eco-cinema.


  • There Once Was an Island frustrates the controlling impulses of Anthropocene visuality. It grounds the film in its Oceanic location, embedding its perspective within the very elemental force that threatens disaster.
  • “…my analysis of There Once Was an Island makes a case for a realist aesthetic amidst the wider landscape of documentary media seeking to represent the traumatic effects of climate change, which tends toward abstraction and totalisation.”

Journal Article

Fanning the Blame: Media Accountability, Climate and Crisis on the Australian “Fire Continent”
Authors: Deb Anderson, Philip Chubb & Monika Djerf-Pierre
Journal: Environmental Communication Vol. 12 Iss. 7, 2018

Abstract: This paper raises questions of media coverage of “compounded crises” related to extreme weather disaster, in the context of urgent calls to address the implications of a changing climate. Through media analysis, it examines the ways debate over bushfire protection policy was framed and made culturally meaningful, thereby politically consequential, in the wake of the worst bushfires in modern Australian history, Black Saturday (2009). The fires, in which 173 people died, led to a Royal Commission and fierce debate over the use of prescribed burning to reduce bushfire hazard. Longitudinal analysis of local, state and national mainstream media coverage (2009–2016) reveals blame games that targeted environmentalists and the government, which near-silenced meaningful discussion of the complexity of fire science, impacts of climate change on weather conditions, and calls for adaptation. By exploring the media’s constitutive role in crisis response, the paper highlights the legacy and potency of ideological conflict that shapes the media-policy nexus in Australia.


  • “…we seek a deeper understanding of how five Australian mainstream media outlets framed particular issues of prescribed burning policy, causal blame and responsibility in the wake of Black Saturday, why environmentalists became the targets for apparently opposing fuel-reduction burning practices, and whether the discourse on prescribed burning connected to overarching issues about climate change policy and adaptation”
  • “Of the 418 news stories, editorials and opinion pieces analysed, more than half (230) were apportioning blame to inadequate fuel reduction leading to disaster. More than two-thirds of those stories highlighted policy implications; almost half mentioned explicit implications. … In stark contrast, in the context of debate over fuel-reduction burning, only 12 articles referred to climate change as either having an impact on the fires, or policy implications.”

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