A few highlights from the 2021 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival

Final stand: The husk of a truck attests to bushfire ferocity in ‘Inferno Without Borders’.

In the never-say-die spirit that saw the Melbourne International Film Festival defy the lockdown’s cinema closures by putting its offerings online, the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival has also forged ahead valiantly.

The Festival runs until Sunday 31 October with a rich range of docos, which you can check out here.

Regrettably, and for reasons beyond control, your humble reviewer got to the festival schedule a tad late, and will endeavour to do some catch-up coverage. Still, here are some worthwhile morsels.


While the recent excellent documentary A Fire Inside provided a vivid overview of the recent bushfire calamity, the similarly absorbing Inferno Without Borders draws focus on the critical issue of fire management.

Directors Sandrine Charruyer and Sophie Lepowic opt for a sober and steady approach as the hour-long film argues a simple point strongly – that indigenous knowledge about forests and how best to reduce fuel loads have worked for thousands of years and should be incorporated into the “modern day” strategies presently deployed.

A handful of indigenous experts working in land management explain rather convincingly how traditional back-burning techniques prevent the advance of firefronts and the advent of crown fires, the horrifying phenomenon where flames travel to the tops of trees and spread from there.

Some stark illustrations of how effective “cultural burning” can be are presented in a straightforward, matter-of fact manner, a device that works handsomely.

One couple credits the indigenous technique for saving their property, describing how the fire literally went around their property.

We also hear from an expert who stands at the point in a forest where one side is charred, the other green. He explains how “reading country” is the key to keeping the forest from becoming scorched.

Officialdom being what it is, however, the application of what appears to be, by any fair measure, common sense is met with lethargy, if not outright resistance.

While there is some recognition of the value indigenous knowledge can bring to fire management, the film stresses how unhelpful bureaucracy and the paperwork involved in getting permission to use traditional techniques can be.

There’s no politics here, thankfully, just a plea for an overlooked and obvious option to be taken more seriously than it presently is.

The film’s well-argued position is also self-consciously timely, given how the changing climate is seen as responsible for the increasing frequency and ferocity of the fire season.

When it comes to actually changing things, however, documentaries do not have a great track record, tending to speak to the like-minded rather than changing minds. If any documentary deserves to be an exception, it’s this one.


In the intriguing 2019 bio-doc Looby we meet the brilliant, recalcitrant Australian artist Keith Looby whose reputation for producing stark, satirical works depicting Australian life and culture – and often the lack of it – was matched by a temperament that kept his circle of friends rather limited.

Though Looby enjoyed great success, much of it with late, legendary art dealer Ray Hughes, it never softened his touch or his approach, often causing controversy, as his many entrants to the Archibald Prize (which he eventually won) attest.

In archival news footage we see Looby as a bright, fiercely talented and articulate young firebrand, slashing away at canvases and the art establishment. Photos show what a party boy he was.

Present-day he comes across as a more sobering, reflective seasoned figure, concerned about his fading impact; he stands in an art gallery vault where many of his works are stored, wondering if they will ever be displayed.

There is some griping from Looby about the modern day art scene where the emphasis is on celebrity rather than work. What eats at him most, though, is the legacy he’ll be leaving, and whether anyone will care.

Oddly, Looby, as solid and well-made a documentary as you’d expect, has never been on TV, the medium for which it was clearly designed. This is its second appearance at the MDFF.

Here’s hoping it soon gets access to the audience it deserves.


The noble point of An Improbable Collection is to reintroduce into the spotlight two formerly famous artists: Englishman Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) and Ireland’s William Orpen (1878-1931).

Written and directed by veteran Australian director Bruce Beresford and narrated by Nicholas Hammond, this swift half-hour film offers compact, by-the-numbers profiles of each artist with the hope that appreciation of their daring work will extend beyond the patrons of the Mildura Arts Centre, where a big selection of their works are on permanent display.

As with Looby, we see through the lives of these gents how fickle fame in the art scene can be; both were victims of a rapidly shifting zeitgeist that saw them go from being acclaimed, coveted artists to suddenly finding themselves on the brink of the abyss.

The great thing about film, of course, is how it can grab such unfortunates by the scruff of the neck and pull them back from the rim, even if temporarily.