Through the rafting expedition of Oliver Cassidy, Franklin tells the remarkable story of Australia’s most significant environmental protest, the Franklin Blockade. We spoke with Cassidy and producer Chris Kamen to learn more about the thinking behind the film.
On 13th January 1983, for the fourth morning in a row, Michael Cassidy awoke in a campsite just upriver of the roaring Great Ravine, the narrowest section of the Franklin River winding through tangled rainforest deep in the newly established Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Persistent rain had made the gorge too treacherous to pass, so Michael and his three friends waited, glum but stoic, for the water level to fall.
The group was rafting the Franklin from the Collingwood River to the freshly formed blockade at Warners Landing: an encampment of environmental activists taking a dramatic stand against the bulldozers poised to commence construction of the hydroelectric Franklin Dam. It was the climactic scene of what is often considered the most significant environmental campaign in Australian history, with growing protests sweeping the nation until the dam became the pivotal election issue of 1983.
As Michael waited, bottlenecked at the gorge mouth, the Franklin’s fate hung in the balance. On one side, an industry and its supporters making arguments of economic necessity; on the other, a growing alliance of environmental activists and concerned citizens spearheaded by the pioneering, if a little ragtag, Wilderness Society and supportive NGOs.
On 13th November 2020, Oliver Cassidy, born in the year of the blockade, finds himself at the very same spot, retracing his late father’s paddle strokes seven years after his passing, his father’s oar in hand. The rains are more favourable, but the environmental storm clouds have only darkened. Amidst entwining political and environmental crises, Oliver is rafting from source to sea for Franklin, a new film telling the story of the river Australian writer Richard Flanagan calls a “vast and ever growing delta of destinies.”
Oliver was nearly not in the film. In conversation with friends interested in making a source-to-sea documentary, Oliver recalls recommending that a human story should be at the heart of it. “As an example,” he remembers saying, “here is what mine would be.” And it became clear he was the perfect protagonist.
Or one of many protagonists. Oliver is rafting partly to honour and connect with his father, and the wisdom and ecological appreciation he instilled. He is also rafting to tell the stories, and celebrate the dedication, of the pioneering activists who fought for the Franklin and helped lay the foundations of the Tasmanian and Australian environmental movements. The film is dedicated to the 1,272 people, including Michael Cassidy, arrested during the blockade. These were the people of Oliver’s childhood. “When I was a kid I didn't know that they weren’t my aunts and uncles,” he recalls - a familial cast of adventurers telling stories of rafting, hiking and skiing.
Franklin sets out to tell a story that connects the activists of today and yesterday. As damaging historical environmental policies and attitudes come home to roost, language pitting generations against one another is never far away. But the activism of today is built on foundations early environmentalists laid, often at great personal cost. “Young activists today aren’t alone,” says Franklin producer Chris Kamen. In Australia and beyond, “they’re part of an ongoing tradition of activism.”
Recognising this lineage feels particularly important as the Franklin activists, now into their 70s and beyond, begin to pass away - often while still embroiled in environmental battles. “There was a headline that came out to say that the Tamar Valley pulp mill wasn’t going ahead, and that was the last campaign he was involved with,” Oliver recalls of the time around his father’s death. “We saw that headline outside of the news agencies as we were driving to my dad’s funeral. It’s like they took each other out!”
'Young activists today aren’t alone, they’re part of an ongoing tradition of activism.'
The story of the Franklin blockade is ultimately a positive one. Labor opposition leader Bob Hawke campaigned against the project, won the 1983 election and blocked construction, surviving a constitutional challenge by Tasmania and Queensland in the Australian High Court. Telling a positive story about the power of direct action is another motivation for the team. Chris thinks it’s emotionally powerful to have a genuinely happy ending in a time rife with ecological grief. “I like to think of the story of the Franklin as emotional sustenance,” he says. “It gives us some energy and the fire in our belly we need to fight the fights of today.”
The story is also relevant. The “High Court case remains one of the most significant legal cases in Australian history,” Chris says, and debates between economic necessity and ecological value define many environmental debates today. And though times have changed since 80s Tasmania (it’s particularly difficult to imagine a campaign team casually purchasing a prime-time television slot to broadcast their case to millions), Oliver and Chris hope people today can learn from the Franklin campaign’s tactics: how to mobilise support, how to get people into power, how to influence those decisions. “The blockade part is the theatre,” says Oliver - the pointy end of a long spear. The longform commitment and self-care required for such campaigns is also important, and easy to lose sight of. Who better to teach us that than the people who have lived through the travails of such a campaign?
The core lesson, though, is the power of citizens standing up and fighting for things they care about. It’s vital to keep framing protest and direct action as responsible citizenship, Chris argues - not Othering activists as somehow criminal or damaging. This is especially in a context of political crackdown on environmental protest in Australia and beyond. In the week of Franklin’s Australia release, the Tasmanian parliament prepared to enact new criminal offences for non-violent protest - measures many think are aimed at environmentalists.
“The big powers that be don't want us to take this much action on climate change and environmental issues,” says Chris. “They know they can't win this argument in the public sphere anymore, so they are resorting to locking protestors up so that they can’t make the public aware of what's going on. It’s scary. The message of the Franklin is as vital as ever: to really celebrate that role of peaceful activism in society and fight for the right to protest.” As such, the Franklin team is working alongside organisations like Amnesty and The Wilderness Society to connect adventure audiences with ongoing environmental campaigns.
'They know they can't win this argument in the public sphere anymore, so they are resorting to locking protestors up so that they can’t make the public aware of what's going on. It’s scary. The message of the Franklin is as vital as ever: to really celebrate that role of peaceful activism in society and fight for the right to protest.'
The rains may have been comparatively kind to Oliver, but his journey, deeply personal as well as political, was full of challenges. “I got a flu and ended up in the hospital with a drip in my arm and a crazy temperature,” he says of his preparation. Then, during the trip, “every injury I’d ever had flared up” - including a knee injury which will be with him for life.
The production was remote and agile, self-contained for twelve days with professional rafting guides (one of whom became an unofficial water dolly). Emergency access, thankfully unneeded, was by helicopter and communication by satellite phone. Each evening Chris would hunt out a nearby cave in which to backup data late into the night, aglow with screens and resident glow worms. Capturing the Franklin’s rugged beauty, in 4K for the first time, was necessarily immersive.
Oliver’s biggest challenge, though, came in the form of gender-affirming surgery only a couple of months before embarking. “I was still changing some of my bandaging on the river trip post that massive operation,” he recalls. “I pushed myself too far, I think.” But, he says, “that's how I needed to be the best that I could be on this.”
Oliver’s journey to becoming a trans man is one thread of this story. It enters the film midway through, undramatically - a harbinger of a more understanding time in which films can afford to treat such matters of identity as relevant, rich but not necessarily a defining detail of a person’s adventure.
Although for Oliver this personal journey was integral to the expedition, he wasn’t out at the start of the filming process and had to weigh up whether he should - or even could - delay his transition until after the film was shot. Ultimately, though everybody agreed it didn’t need to be a big deal, it felt relevant to the overarching enquiry about how we can be the best we can be. “Human diversity is the same as biodiversity,” Oliver reflects. “Both are essential for our resilience in the world, and our ability to hold strong communities and create change in the way that we’ve seen as part of the Franklin, whatever it is.”
'Human diversity is the same as biodiversity. Both are essential for our resilience in the world, and our ability to hold strong communities and create change in the way that we’ve seen as part of the Franklin, or whatever it is.'
In elaborating on this he recalls Bob Brown: leader of the blockade, future leader of The Greens and one of the first openly gay men in the Australian public eye. Gay sex was only legalised in Australia in 1994, and in Tasmania in 1997. During the 80s, gay men were regularly harassed by police and could receive massive jail terms simply for having living with another man and having ‘too few’ bedrooms. Oliver paraphrases Brown speaking about rafting the Franklin: “to have gone from weathering that sort of pressure into fourteen days … on the river, where there's just such an incredible expanse of life in so many different forms, and feel that you're just one of thousands of species experiencing this place all together, and be completely who you are and bring your soul and your mind and to fill up all the space of your being and be really present with everything … he describes it as the best fortnight of his life, and I absolutely understand why.”