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Over the weekend of Saturday February 7, 2009, a wall of fire swept through rural Victoria, leaving in its wake 4,500 km² of devastation; over 3,500 buildings were destroyed, countless wild and domesticated animals perished, and 173 people died. From the ashes of what would become known as ‘Black Saturday’, decimated communities began to reform through unifying actions that define the true spirit of Australians. One such endeavor was ‘The Blacksmith’s Tree’, a monument six years in the making, featuring leaves forged from the steel of metal craftsmen from the region. Soon, news of artist and project founder Amanda Gibson’s vision reached blacksmiths the world over; the result - a three tonne, 9.8-metre tall stainless steel and copper gum tree, its canopy comprised of over 3500 leaves forged in 20 different countries.

Director Andrew Garton boarded the project in 2011, assembling footage shot by local Warwick Page since 2009 as well as providing cameras to the welders and volunteers at the forefront of The Tree Project. In February 2019, Garton finished Forged From Fire, a remarkable account of the decade it took to build The Blacksmith’s Tree, and the resurgent spirit that the project inspired. “It's incredible how a tragic event can bring people together,” says the director, who spoke to SCREEN-SPACE ahead of the film’s screening at the 2019 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. (Photo credit: Deepshika Rameshkumar)

SCREEN-SPACE: Describe your collaboration with Amanda Gibson (pictured, below). What did you see in her that drove her to make this project work?

GARTON: Amanda would call to let me know when there was action at the forge or the Tree Project Factory. I'd turn up with my camera and gradually disappear into the events of the day, or the many evenings for that matter. Amanda and her team trusted that I wouldn't interfere, that I would blend in. And everyone trusted Amanda's judgement and capacity for keeping us all together. We all knew that Amanda had the drive to make this happen, was devoted to it and everyone working on it. It was her capacity to understand the sensitivities out in the community and care she took to modulate every aspect of the Blacksmiths' Tree so that everyone felt involved and, well, together, that was rare and cinematic - Amanda is Forged from Fire's heroine!

SCREEN-SPACE: The eight-year production schedule must have provided hours of footage and interview content. How structured was your narrative and how much did it alter over the course of the shoot/post period?

GARTON: I created a loose structure, a mind map actually, based on a timeline of events, mostly to manage all the assets. Once I had all the interviews transcribed and extensive shot lists spread across index cards, I began work on a post-script. It was reading through all the interviews that a narrative of sorts emerged. But it was one thing referring to transcripts, it was another finding (that) the spoken word often didn't fit the nuanced flow I was looking for. But I had to lock off a script, both to ensure I had a narrative arch to refer back to and to not get lost in all the material we had shot. It was also important that the footage I'd received from other filmmakers honoured their vision but didn't detract from the emotive visual and aural flow of the work. 

SCREEN-SPACE: Your subject matter demands your emotional engagement, and presents daily displays of profound sadness. How does that impact you, the documentarian? Were you able to stay objective? Did you have moments when you needed to 'purge' emotion?

GARTON: I don't ever purge emotion, but there were times I'd put the camera down. If people were unable to talk to Amanda many would turn to me. There were times when all sorts of people would want to share their fire story with me. Being with the Blacksmiths' Tree, no matter what stage of the process it was in, their connection to it would create a safe space in which stories would be shared. I didn't film these interactions. There's a time when one documents and there's a time one connects without a camera. Of course when it comes to post you have to make tough decisions. I think you have to remain objective and balance one's emotions simultaneously. After all, as a filmmaker one's stories to be communicated well, to reach people, to connect with people and this is a huge responsibility.

Forged from Fire - Trailer from Andrew Garton on Vimeo.

SCREEN-SPACE: The Tree proved a cathartic, unifying work of art. Does your film have a similar affect when you watch it with people from the region?

GARTON: It doesn't matter where (we screen) the film, whether in the region or elsewhere, so many emotions emerge. Some years ago, an earlier shorter version of the film was screened at a human rights event in Barcelona. Everyone in the audience appeared touched by the film. Some mentioned how similar we are... It's incredible how a tragic event can bring people together, that their humanity can to be recognised by those who are watching the film. The film brings out all sorts of stories in people. It seems to create a safe space in which people both listen, share deeply moving stories and feel comfortable to do so. 

SCREEN-SPACE: What is your lasting, most impactful memory of the production's history?

GARTON: The most memorable moment was the first day of shooting that our incredible D.O.P. Mike Wilkins (pictured, right) and I did together, back in December 2013, when I interviewed most of the men and women involved in the creation of the Blacksmiths' Tree. In spite of the many who had been directly affected by Black Saturday they found solace, they found comfort and inspiration in each other, in being together, in creating something no one had ever done before, that they were part of this. To both listen to their stories and that they felt comfortable to share them with me, in front of a camera and everything else we had going, was a tremendous gift. These people, their testimonies, their trust, the quality of their character and the essence of the voice, these were what kept me going when the going got tough and it often did. I think we are better together than apart.

FORGED FROM FIRE will screen on July 22 at the Backlot Cinemas as part of the 2019 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL. Full session and ticketing information can be found at the official website.

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