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Bob Brown’s The Giants: A Great Australian

The Giants creates a spellbinding image of a future world, and that is Bob Brown’s vision.

The Giants, Bob Brown (2023)

There are two likely emotions that a person will feel when they finish watching The Giants. Some will certainly feel smugness, whether from contempt at this celebration of Bob Brown, the archetypal “loonie leftie” in modern Australia, or, more insidiously, nod their heads and wag their chins: oh yes, terrible, very important, however… 

But for those willing to surrender themselves and their biases, not just to another political doco, environmental paean or even a biopic (shudder), but a poetic first depiction of one of the most important Australians, there will come a powerful feeling of awe.  

Weaving together archival film and audio from Brown’s life, sumptuous animation of the native Tasmanian forests, and the occasional, tasteful soundbite from the present day, The Giants emerges as an artwork of stunning simplicity yet astonishing power and beauty. The film, running to the goldilocks time of 113 minutes, engages meaningfully in Brown’s upbringing, including his relationships with his parents and his struggles with his homosexuality, his public coming out in 1978 and his now 25 year-long relationship with Paul Thomas. However, by far the greatest achievement of the film is how it communicates Brown’s own highly personal and spiritual connection to the natural world.  

Serving as joint writer, director and producer of the film, Laurence Billiet and Rachael Antony have eschewed the formalistic drudgery of so many contemporary documentary films. They do not start in medias res; with a figure like Brown doing so would destroy its comprehensive scope. Nor do they hop back and forth in a feeble attempt at wistfulness. Instead, The Giants turns repeatedly from archival film and audio from the passage of Brown’s life to animation of the intricacies of the native Tasmanian forest, and back again. Doing so, it builds a quiet, but steady rhythm, never dwelling too long on explanations of the natural world, nor diving too far into the political intrigues of Brown’s life. Much like nature itself, something is always happening, and the sudden bursts of drama are all the more impactful for their sudden flash and quick departure. It almost feels as though the wilderness itself directed the film, and its powerful evocation of the interconnectedness of the forests brings a supremely touching portrait of their importance for Brown and so many others.  

The flow is not disturbed but enhanced by occasional, tasteful clips from the present day. They provide a reminder of the quiet substance of the man himself, now largely out of the public eye, and they make it clear that this is not hero-worship. Brown’s quiet, down-to-earth character grounds the film, and aids it to pivot to become couched in a firm note of protest. Importantly, the film’s discussion of the nature of protest is left to near the end. And rather than simply copy the existing rulebook, The Giants takes a far more nuanced approach to the great progressive dissenters of the twentieth century. It does not show a clip of Gandhi or MLK to sanctify Bob Brown, nor to pretend that ‘great men’ are needed for change.  

Instead, the film ultimately takes a far more humanistic tone. Just as Brown himself, who, quiet and shy, found his calling slowly, the film speaks to a dignified hopefulness. “Civil disobedience is obedience to nature,” Brown says. The Giants creates a spellbinding image of a future world, and that is Bob Brown’s vision. It is a world characterised by the upholding of human and natural dignity, and an acute awareness of the human dependence on nature, an awareness that First Nations people are increasingly bringing to attention again. The use of the First Nations’ name for the Tarkine, the beautiful: tarkanya is a notable example of this acknowledgement.  

It might be tempting to critique the film’s engagement with Brown’s homosexuality, which is limited mainly to his courageous public coming out in 1978, and his relationship with quarter-century partner Paul Thomas, especially given his place as the first out member of the LGBTQIA+ community in Australian political life. But doing so would undermine what is the indisputable focus of Brown’s, and thus the film’s, life: his passion for nature. The details of gay rights movement in Australia, and its Tasmanian battles, belong to another, perhaps future, documentary, not to one about a self-described “green, who happens to be pink.” 

Ultimately, The Giants, from its standout opening scenes, with volcanic renditions of native Tasmanian forest networks, to its portrayals of Brown’s own growth as a public figure, renders something very special about the importance of nature. Bob Brown is not the hero of this film, but merely the subject. An influential, inspirational, and deeply detailed subject, to be sure, but nonetheless still a subject within the world of the titular trees. It is difficult to overstate the power of such a film. But after you leave the cinema, expect the first tree you see to faintly glow.

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