Murray Fredericks on Fire | FilmInk

The photographer discusses his film project, Blaze.

Australian landscape artist Murray Fredericks is renowned for his large-scale photographs of remote and difficult locations.

Working in both Australia and overseas, Fredericks’ photo-series have taken him to the landscapes of Greenland, Lake Eyre and the Himalayas.

His latest project is Blaze, an observational documentary, which accompanies a series of landscape photographs with fire as their central theme.

Made with Academy Award-nominated team Bentley Dean (co-director) and Tania Nehme (editor), both of Tanna fame, the film depicts blazing trees, and often the flame itself, against flooded lakes and rivers, which have been pervasive in Australia over the La Niña cycles of 2021 and 2022.

Fredericks discusses with FilmInk how it all began.

How did Blaze come about?

“This is a completely accidental film. I asked Bentley Dean to come along, if he could make a five minute behind the scenes sort of online thing. And he got right into it, loved what he saw, had a really good feeling for it. And I think because it had no script or plan or anything behind it, the whole documentary unfolded very beautifully and naturally. And when he reviewed the footage with Tania Nehme, the editor, they both decided there was a longer-form doc in there.”

Blaze is related to your latest series of photographs which capture trees alight. Can you expand on this?

“I’m a landscape artist. And the theme that I’ve been working with for the last year and a half is fire in the landscape. What we’ve been doing is heading out to a lot of the flooded lakes that are temporary; they’re only there in the middle of the desert at the moment because of all this wet we’re having this season, and we’ve been using cinematic pyro gear to wire gas lines, up the back of these massive trees out in the middle of these lakes, and then lighting the gas at sunset or whenever there’s a thunderstorm or something absolutely dramatic happening in the sky. And we’ve been building up this series through that.

“Bentley fell in love with the process and what we were doing. And then he started recording thoughts and ideas, as I was working out what I was doing at the same time”.

Was part of the interest for you in making the film to get an understanding of the current Australian climate?

“Absolutely. It’s a whole lot of things. I’ve spent the last 25 years working on very deep landscape projects, multi-year, weeks and weeks spent alone in the bush at a time. And really stripping back the landscape to its bare elements and then making a series out of that. So, I actually made a film called Salt in 2009 and that was about living in the middle of Lake Eyre for five weeks at a time over a decade. Blaze is about the land in itself and what it means and how humans interact with it. The environment or green issues and things like that are absolutely at the forefront, but they’re also only one part of it.

“I’ve been working and listening to a lot of friends who work in environmental river flows, water flows, those kinds of things. Particularly got interested in what’s happening in the lower Darling due to the corruption of water flows, the theft of water, the over-allocation of water. So I went to the local community, they had those fish kills, where 2 million Murray Cod were found dead in the Darling. I saw that lake system emblematic of a lot of the environmental issues that were going on, but also, that area’s emblematic of indigenous dispossession, of big corporate business stepping on smaller farms and communities. It just felt that Menindee was a great place to start. I approached the local community and proposed lighting up one of the trees, not as a protest, but as a beacon, and said, ‘Look, if you let me do this for my art project, I will encourage the community to use the imagery to draw attention to these issues’.

“But once we did one, I realised that we’d hit on something bigger. Then we just started doing more and more work. We started working in river systems below Menindee that were flowing for the first time in a decade, and there are lakes and rivers and things down there, and then we headed up to the area around Lake Eyre and continued the work in rivers up there that were flowing that haven’t flowed for many, many years.

“Australian landscape is in an unusual state at the moment. The country is green from coast to coast. The sand dunes, the lake, the red desert is all covered in green bush at the moment. But the lakes and the rivers that are normally just markings on a map are also all full and full of life”.

Did you enjoy working with Bentley Dean and Tania Nehme?

“Absolutely. They’re completely passionate people. It’s a complete love project for everyone involved. Very little money changed hands at all. And I think we’re all just doing it for art’s sake and the joy of sight of the system that we’re also familiar with. All of us work in film and photography as professional editors, shooters, whatever. We’re all used to working within those constraints. And this was just an opportunity that presented itself to work completely outside the system. And we all loved it and ran with it”.

What was the biggest challenge?

“Cutting the film from the one hour that Bentley originally came up with down to 29 minutes.

“What Bentley and Tanya brought to the whole process was this ability to work at the pace of the landscape. It’s very, very hard to hold shots and keep an audience interested. And that’s what they’ve done so beautifully in this work. I think working outside of the system has allowed them to experiment with a pacing and a sense of time that I think your average commissioning editor for a streaming service just wouldn’t allow.

“And to me, as a landscape artist, it’s all about time slowing down. So, what Bentley’s done is just tapped straight into that and gone, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is what the film’s gonna look like’.”

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