Australian Environments On Screen

Documentary film, television and online media have shaped and transformed our sense of the Australian environment since the 1950s.

This research is producing the first deeply historicized account of how media has fashioned contemporary environmental consciousness, charting changing relationships between people and the Australian environment.

“Remaking the Australian Environment Through Documentary Film and Television” is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP190101178).

The Valley is Ours (1948), directed by John Heyer for the Australian National Film Board.


The effects of climate change and other Anthropogenic impacts on the environment are the greatest challenge of our time for both the sciences and the humanities. We urgently require deeply historicised and interdisciplinary knowledge that can help make sense of environmental change in the twenty-first century.

This project will bring to light the history of an Australian ‘documentary public’ of environmental knowledge that has shaped what we now know as ‘the Australian environment’ fromWWII  onwards and will address the impacts of this knowledge on environmental consciousness, understandings of Indigenous lifeways, national image, activism and policymaking. The research will: 

  • map and analyse the institutional, industrial and production history of screen media as a popular form of environmental knowledge;
  • analyse how documentary shapes the  public imagination of the Australian environment including our understanding of Indigenous Australian ecological knowledge; 
  • and investigate how the Australian environment circulates in the transnational media domain, shaping globalised forms of environmental consciousness

While debates in film and screen studies over the last decade have begun to grapple with the environment, its politics and mediation, there are still few ecocritical readings of film historical concerns. This work is important because historical analysis addresses an urgent requirement for meaningful histories of the past and the unfolding present that afford full perspective on the ever-expanding impact of fossil-fuelled modernity on the planet we share with countless other species. Film and television are significant components of cultural histories that assist us in denaturalising the taken for granted assumptions about how we live and impact on our shared biosphere.

Case Studies

Petrofilm and the Shell Film Unit

The Back of Beyond. (1954), produced and directed by John Heyer

Sir David Attenborough in Australia

Sir David Attenborough at the Great Barrier Reef by, License at

Women and the Rise of Environmental Documentary

Wild Things (2020), directed by Sally Ingleton


Smaill, Belinda. “Historicising David Attenborough’s Nature: Nation, Continent, Country and Environment.” Celebrity Studies (2020) (10.1080/19392397.2020.1855995) 

Smaill, Belinda. “Petromodernity, the Environment and Historical Film Culture.Screen.
62.1 (2021): 59-77.   . 

Whitelaw, Mitchell and Belinda Smaill. “Biodiversity Data as Public Environmental Media: Citizen Science Projects, National Databases, and Data Visualizations.” Journal of Environmental Media 2.1 (2021): 79-99. 

Smaill, Belinda. “Ecological Relations: FalconCam in Conversation with The Back of Beyond,” in A Companion to Australian Cinema, edited by Felicity Collins, Jane Landman and and Susan Bye. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019. 508-524.

Davis, Therese and Belinda Smaill. “Rethinking Documentary and the Environment: A Multi-Scalar Approach to Time.” Transformations: Journal of Media, Culture & Technology 32 (2018).


Belinda Smaill is an Associate Professor in Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. Over the last two decades she has built an international reputation in the field of screen studies and documentary studies in particular. She has published over 30 journal articles and book chapters and her two books, The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture (Palgrave MacMillan 2010) and Regarding Life: Animals and the Documentary Moving Image (State University of New York Press 2016) have garnered international recognition for their role in rethinking the documentary tradition in the history of the moving image. Over the last decade she has been researching issues concerning the nonhuman environment and how they relate to fact-based storytelling in film and television. This work has focused on how screen media might produce knowledge and solutions for a world facing environmental crisis. She is the Leader of the Environment and Media Research Program at Monash University. 

Therese Davis is Professor and Department Chair in Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology. She has more than 25 years of experience devising, designing and teaching film and media studies courses at universities in Australia and is known for research in the areas of Australian cinema, Australian Indigenous filmmaking, and women and film. She is co-author of Australian Cinema After Mabo (2004) with Felicity Collins, author of The Face on the Screen: Death, Recognition and Spectatorship (2004), and co-producer of Australian Indigenous Film and Television Knowledge Sharing platform (2018).

Chris Healy (FAHA) Professor in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. He has been researching and publishing on the relationships between historical and cultural studies for more than two decades. His national and international reputation as a leading scholar in this field has been achieved through an extensive body of published work, including two single-author monographs, five co-edited books, more than 40 book chapters and articles in refereed journals, 28 edited journal issues, a number of significant reports, catalogue essays and articles in non-refereed journals. He has been a Chief Investigator on competitive grant projects attracting over $1 million. He has an outstanding track-record of graduate supervision with 15 PhD completions since 2001, an exemplary record of mentoring through formal programs at the University of Melbourne, long-standing work as an editor of a major Cultural Studies Journal and through the ARC Cultural Research Network.

Melanie Ashe is a PhD student in Monash’s school of Media, Film and Journalism. Her research, as part of this project, explores how resource extraction has shaped the Australian moving image and its surrounding industry and cultures, focusing on the region around Broken Hill as a case study. Previously, she worked in Environmental Communications before completing her Masters in Film Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. Her writing on sustainable film production in Hollywood has been published in Media Industries. She is also the Education Coordinator for the Melbourne Women in Film Festival where she has programmed educational sessions for high school students and facilitated filmmaking workshops for aspiring filmmakers.

Simon Troon is a Research Associate and Teaching Assistant in Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism, having received his PhD there in 2019. His doctoral research conjoined film studies and the environmental humanities to examine how disaster movies from Hollywood and elsewhere, including documentaries, configure different kinds of ethical encounter between humans and nonhuman forces. Ongoing research interests include documentary poetics, realist film theory, and more-than-human ethics. Previously, he has worked in various arts organisations and completed a Masters in Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Canterbury in Aotearoa New Zealand.


This research project is aligned with Monash University’s Environment and Media Research Program, and we are also working in collaboration with the Environmental Film Festival Australia.

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners, and acknowledge Elders past and present, of all the lands on which we conduct our research.