As I begin to write this blog I am sitting in the stairwell of my building because it is two degrees cooler than in my apartment. The touch-pad thingy on my laptop isn’t really working because of the sweat on my hands and I swear the walls are beginning to bend in the heat. Or maybe I just need another drink of water. The heat is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t make me nervous anymore – I no longer live near the bush. Even so, when I go outside, the hot westerly wind automatically sets of a checklist in my mind:
Can I smell smoke? How far am I from home? Who is at my home? Where is my cat? Is there petrol in the car if we need to evacuate?
No, I remind myself. I am not in the Blue Mountains anymore, I am in the inner west and the closest tree to my house is a hundred metres away.
My dad and my brother are in the Rural Fire Service. They used to come home from a fire – their yellow overalls carrying the heavy scent of smouldering bark – and mum and I would get a little tally: how close the fires were to the Grose Valley, what streets were being evacuated, how many houses had been lost and where. They would both sleep for a couple of hours and then head out again. Sometimes they wouldn’t come home at all, sleeping in the truck instead.
They never had to come home and tell us how many people had been killed.
173 people is so, so very many. Children, parents, brothers and sisters, friends who had gone back to get other friends, all swallowed up. In the weeks and months following the Black Saturday bush fires I found myself reading every story that was printed, every personal account that was aired on television. I couldn’t help it. I did so with guilt, a dread that maybe I was garnering a twisted sort of entertainment from such horrific tragedy, but I couldn’t stop reading, couldn’t stop listening. I still can’t.
I have always written about firefighters. It must be that old ‘what you know’ thing, although in this case I know very little firsthand. I have never fought a fire; I have only ever imagined what my father and brother were facing. But I have seen the sun choked by smoke and had white ash like snowflakes fall on my face. I have had a bag packed by the front door. But I have never had to evacuate or return home to a charred pile of bricks, scavenging through for anything that might remain: a bathroom tile, a spoon from a wedding cutlery set, sooted glass beads. Still, I find myself drawn to these narratives, both in reading and writing. Is it any different to slowing down to stare at the scene of a car accident? I would like to think not. I would like to think that in some part of me I identify, just a tiny bit, with what these people have been through. The experience isn’t as alien to me as those other monumental tragedies that have filled so many pages and film cells: the Holocaust, the September 11 attacks. Sympathy, after all, is not a difficult emotion to tap into. Empathy is far more potent, far more manipulative, far more powerful. Narratives that we empathise with resonate because we can slot ourselves in. Another aspect of this is surely the sense of solidarity conjured by such narratives.
Strangely enough, I was reminded of this in reading an article about 127 Hours director, Danny Boyle. 127 Hours tells the story of Aaron Ralston, the rock climber who in 2003 severed his own hand with a penknife to free himself after becoming pinned under a boulder. In the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, Jane Wheatley wrote of her experience of watching the amputation:
‘I managed to view the amputation scene through splayed fingers, I tell Boyle, because by then you had gone on such a journey with Ralston – the fall, the ingenious if fruitless attempts to free himself, the heartbreaking soliloquies and thirst-induced hallucinations – that you felt the least you could do was to bear witness.’
Perhaps that is what it is. Bearing witness.
On Wednesday night ABC2 aired the documentary Inside the Firestorm. It was respectful journalism that allowed the subjects to speak for themselves. A man spoke of being overcome by smoke and waking up in a paddock, wondering where his wife and two small children were. Their absence was palpable, just a singular man in the frame, just his voice and photos of his family. Their fate was horribly clear even before he got to the end of his story. Another woman was in her fifties, well dressed, nicely made-up for the cameras in mauves and lavenders – she had obviously thought about her appearance on national television. She was so calm, so articulate, reflective even, as she spoke about fleeing her home and not knowing exactly where her husband was. It wasn’t until she described what a gentle person he had been that she crumbled and lost composure. This documentary was still a story though, still a narrative, and techniques, however subtle, had been employed to carry the viewer along on the journey. The most notable was the use of narration in present tense, telling of the fire’s progress as the narrative switched focus from person to person, area to area. It didn’t feel gratuitous or sensationalised though. It didn’t feel like rubber-necking at an accident, it felt like bearing witness. And there’s a difference. Isn’t there?
Simultaneously, Channel Nine was broadcasting its ‘live’ coverage of cyclone Yasi. Reporters in multiple locations with unruly hair, looking so very concerned; cameras at the ready to capture dramatic footage they could later boast would only be seen on Nine. Constantly shifting from reporter to reporter, each with no more to say than the last. The frequent ad breaks were introduced with montages of the Premier and the Prime Minister voicing their warnings, people evacuating their homes, trees flailing, all to a dramatic musical sore. Building drama and tension and expectation for an event yet to unfold. One couldn’t help but feel there was perhaps a little misplaced disappointment when the cyclone didn’t fulfil its category five prediction. The tragic irony, of course, is that it was a lack of information that led to so very many deaths on 7 February 2009. Although emotional manipulation to a carefully chosen soundtrack isn’t what anyone needs in an emergency, I wonder if we’ll ever see TV screens all carrying the same information: a simple list of which areas need to evacuate and in what direction. But who would want to miss a ratings opportunity like that?
As to the aftermath, there is a fine balance when it comes to documenting these tragedies. I don’t think we’ll produce a blockbuster with a Black Saturday backdrop – Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman in a doomed romance. At least not for a few years. But these stories need to be told, because silence builds trauma. These 173 people and what happened to them needs to be remembered. Let’s hope our nations’s storytellers can find ways to do it respectfully.