The most basic function of a representative democracy is to serve and ensure the welfare of its people. Sadly, this seems to stand in direct opposition to the self-interest and corruption that so characterises today’s political ‘leaders’. So what are we to do as responsible citizens then, when our government takes the side of ‘big business’? When those with power threaten the loss of home, land, health and security – how far would you go to protect yourself and those you love? This was the question faced by the inhabitants of NSW’s Northern Rivers, whose land was targeted by Big Energy as a major location for the drilling of Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining in 2010. An epic six-year battle would ensue and despite overwhelming, vocal dissent from the local community, plans for mining were staggeringly given governmental approval. With his stirring new documentary The Bentley Effect, director Brendan Shoebridge takes us to the very frontline of this grass-roots campaign that rose up to protect both the rights and the natural integrity of one of Australia’s most beautiful regions.
Growing up near Lismore, NSW in the 70s and 80s, Shoebridge was exposed to a diverse mix of film influences. Particularly impressed by the original Star Wars series and David Attenborough’s classic nature documentaries, Shoebridge reflects: “They probably led me down the path I’m on – making docos about real life heroes battling the evil empire who are hell bent on trashing all this beauty and privilege we enjoy.” Jobs at AAV / Digital Pictures and Clemenger BBDO in Melbourne as well as Channel 5 in the UK would follow but it was the five year bombardment he received working in news that opened Shoebridge’s eyes to the might of the documentary format. As he explains: “Storytelling, especially long form documentary is a powerful force for change. [Documentaries] build empathy, engage audiences and prompt action like nothing else can.”
The Bentley Effect stands as a deeply personal project for Shoebridge and began not long after the threat of CSG mining was first identified in his community. “I joined the first rally in Lismore and was surprised to see no one was filming. I grabbed my camera and quickly realised I was getting some valuable footage recorded. I followed events ever since because I could see a big showdown looming and felt a responsibility to bare witness with my camera.” Shoebridge was then approached to make a short film by enviro not-for-profit Lock the Gate, which would soon grow into Fractured Country. While this served to successfully raise awareness in the community around the dangers of CSG mining, he found himself increasingly drawn to what he calls ‘the protector movement’, wanting to tell a story about what a united community can achieve if they banded together, built a movement, shared collective intelligence and stood up for what really matters. It is this concept that forms the nucleus of The Bentley Effect.
Winner of the Byron Film Award at the Byron Bay International Film Festival, The Bentley Effect continues the rich tradition of enviro-docs like Gasland, Aim High in Creation! and Tunnel Vision. Unlike similar films that aim to admonish and alarm, the focus here is on empowerment, making it far from your standard exposition of environmental activism. A spiritual sequel of sorts to Richard Todd’s Frackman, Shoebridge’s focus is not on the single crusader like a Dayne Pratzky, that film’s titular hero (though he is briefly featured here) but on how an entire community, featuring members from all walks of life initiated and mobilized a non-violent protest movement powerful enough to enact significant social change. Shoebridge incisively cuts together scenes of civil meetings, education sessions and often creative and humorous fundraising endeavours to charming effect. Through The Bentley Effect’s 85-minute runtime, we come to deeply identify with the film’s many colourful characters and ride the glorious highs and harrowing lows alongside them as they fight with cunning and rectitude. We are finally drawn towards the battle for Bentley, lauded as this generation’s Eureka Stockade, a true spectacle in which thousands of protestors camped for months to prevent the mining proposed by Metgasco.
A timely and important film, Shoebridge gifts us with access to the epic struggle of a community who heroically fought in favour of consultation, transparency and justice. More than just the story of a social movement however, the film also adroitly muses on issues around Indigenous land rights and the place of art in activism. It also ultimately examines our government’s propensity to place short-term gain and corporate profits above the wellbeing of its people and country. Shot in an evocative and eye-catching style, The Bentley Effect stands as rousing cinematic proof of what can be achieved when a community unites as one; how coordinated acts of civil disobedience, savvy social media strategies and direct action can successfully overcome even the most vested political interests.
Now gaining traction overseas, Shoebridge is eyeing a tour of the film to the United Kingdom in the near future. It is here that the industry is attempting to ramp up with over two hundred sites earmarked for fracking, with even the iconic Sherwood Forest under threat. When asked about how the local movement has faired since the film wrapped, he is happy to report that it has gone from strength to strength. He is however, rightfully reticent to declare anything like victory, warning: “these battles are far from over and it is clear that the industry has an enormous influence over Governments. The revolving door between them is now wide open for all to see. And to put it well beyond doubt, the Government introduced some staggeringly draconian anti protest laws in NSW last year in response to the community actions against coal and gas. Everyone knows what’s going on – but the question now is, how will the population respond?”
For Shoebridge there is hope but the time to act is now and The Bentley Effect stands as his impassioned call to arms: “I feel it’s important to see these as global issues demanding a global solution. Here we are fighting off threats like an Indian coal giant trying to construct the world’s largest coalmine in the Great Barrier Reef marine park. Like most people I find it hard to believe the conversations I seem to be having everywhere on a daily basis but like it or not, it seems the whole planet is now our front line so here’s hoping the world takes a stand like we saw at Bentley. This is why it’s so important. Change is possible – but we need to pull out all the stops.”
The Bentley Effect is screening as part of Transitions Film Festival at Carlton’s Cinema Nova on Thursday March 2 at 6:30pm. Director Brendan Shoebridge will be in attendance and the screening will be followed by a Panel discussion that includes Greg Foyster, Alex Kelly and Charlie Wood. The team is also raising funds to take the film to the UK. Donations can be made at: https://planetfunder.org