A pilot’s vision of Mother Earth

Take a long look at our home from on high in Jerry Grayson’s The Earth Wins. [8 October 2013 | Peter Boyer]

The remains of forest near Marysville, Victoria, February 2009. PHOTO JERRY GRAYSON

We begin at sunrise, ascending above a tree-covered hill as we gaze beyond it into a pre-dawn light. Our flight over Mother Earth takes us above a roiling surf, and seabirds perched precariously on a cluster of rocks.

Then, among the waves, a group of floating black figures that show themselves to be wet-suited surfers, then more bodies, then a crowd of students in a busy college quadrangle, an airport, the regimented rows of a food crop, and pickers moving among them.

Cut to a mechanical digger dumping spoils of the earth into a giant truck, then multiple parallel ribbons that reveal themselves as rails when a coal locomotive moves in, as ethereal voices and strings lend a ghostly feel to the scene.

The questions come as words on the screen: Have we engaged in a damaging battle with the ultimate “Mother”? Are we simply borrowing her gifts, all of which she will take back in time? Over a row of abandoned aircraft in a desert: If they are gifts, should we discard them so casually? As a jetliner takes off : Are they ultimately ours, or Hers? As birds gather in a tree drowned in a lake: Maybe the gifts are being taken away.

A long, mesmerising sequence of animals on land and in water poses more questions. Are we big enough yet to listen to the earth we walk on? What if these animals can adapt to warming, and we can’t? Does the Earth need man, or man need the Earth?

These aren’t the questions of an academic environmentalist or philosopher, but an aviator. Former Royal Navy flyer Jerry Grayson has spent most of his adult life flying helicopters above and around most of Earth’s continents. Up there you come to see things differently.

Now, after years of looking down on his Earth and thinking about what it means to him, he’s decided it’s time to speak out about it. The result is a unique and spectacular film documentary about a planet that will survive no matter what we do to it, with the telling title The Earth Wins.

The movie was produced for giant Imax cinema screens, but has been adapted for standard format cinema. It has been screening at CineMona at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, where I caught up with Grayson and Sara Hine, his partner and the film’s producer.

Grayson is not your average helicopter pilot. He’s had his share of excitement, including multiple rescue missions over stormy waters in the disastrous 1979 Fastnet yacht race. That effort won him a gallantry award. This is no ordinary helicopter pilot, or filmmaker.

The Earth Wins reminded me of the contemplative films of another Briton, Terrence Davies, director of Distant Voices, Still Lives, but its measured pace is deceptive. Being an Imax production it’s relatively short, but every scene contains a great diversity of visual information.

Especially compelling are Grayson’s detailed examinations of the aftermath of two significant natural disasters within the past decade that captured global attention. Hurricane Katrina has become something of a poster for the apocalypse.

Watching Grayson’s aerial scenes depicting the puny efforts of US federal and state authorities to save lives and stem the flow of vast quantities of sea-water, it isn’t hard to see why.

Except for a small hump on which the original 19th century Mississippi Delta trading port was built, New Orleans lies at or below sea level, protected by levees created by US army engineers. For decades human ingenuity defied nature. That is, until Katrina came along in 2005.

Startling aerial images of a drowned city convey with great power the vulnerability of artificial barriers against natural forces. Vehicles, ships and buildings lie submerged in metres of seawater, or heaped together in a chaotic jumble, pathetic remnants of what was once a vibrant city neighbourhood.

Grayson and Hine learned about Australia’s brand of apocalyptic events during Victoria’s record-breaking 2008-09 summer, when the most devastating bushfires in Australia’s history raced across wooded hills north of Melbourne, just missing the home they’d completed six weeks earlier.

Grayson promptly took to the air with his camera gear. His images of bare hillsides with black sticks that were once trees, and the slow zoom into the remains of what were homes and shops in the little bush township of Marysville, stay with you long after they’re gone.

School audiences will respond to the movie’s relatively short duration, as well as its directness and simplicity, panoramic sweep and timeless wisdom. Such qualities contrast sharply with the very specific and highly contentious concerns of a new US movie, Pandora’s Promise.

This feature-length documentary takes a forensic look at nuclear energy, and its possible future role as a low-carbon source of electricity. The movie made a big impact last January at the annual US Sundance Film Festival and won an Oscar nomination for its director, Robert Stone.

A nuclear physicist and an engineer tell of the early hope for nuclear energy as it slowly won public support after the shock of the atomic blasts that ended World War II. That is, until 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear accident coincided with the premiere of the anti-nuclear movie, The China Syndrome.

The real power of Pandora’s Promise is in the personal stories of prominent environmentalists. They describe how their active hostility to nuclear power, reinforced by early accidents, changed with new evidence about its impact and the need for a viable alternative to fossil energy.

Pandora’s Promise mounts a persuasive case for looking afresh at nuclear energy in light of recent advances in generating technology and waste minimisation. I will revisit this vexed debate soon.

• Contact MONA at Berriedale for public or school screenings of The Earth Wins, which will also feature in a simulcast event on 23 October at Hobart Village Cinemas. Pandora’s Promise will be screened once only: 6.15 pm this Thursday at the State Cinema, North Hobart.

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