Review: ‘The Weather Diaries’ Speaks to Parenting in an Environmental Crisis

“There’s an anguish in watching Imogen work so hard to chase her dreams, knowing they’re born in an epoch that’s already lost,” Kathy Drayton says early on in The Weather Diaries. Drayton often lies awake thinking about how to be a parent in a time of environmental crisis – and her documentary is clearly fuelled by this burning anxiety for her daughter, as well as the world at large.

Drayton’s daughter is Imogen Jones, who, over the documentary’s six years, becomes the successful electronic musician known as Lupa J. The Weather Diaries tracks Imogen’s graduation from high school and burgeoning music career while simultaneously examining the environmental destruction caused by humankind. Of course, environmental catastrophe is a vast subject, and so Drayton wisely narrows her focus to two main stories: the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, where a research team tests Australian vegetation under projected temperature increases, and the various flying fox colonies of the parks in and around Sydney. At the Hawkesbury Institute, Drayton is confronted with the reality of what a three degree temperature increase looks like on Australian trees, as she follows the researchers across their project. The flying fox colonies also starkly demonstrate the effects of global warming, as they suffer dehydration and injury in the extreme – though increasingly regular – heat. 

The flying fox scenes are some of the most arresting in the documentary: the creatures swoop majestically through the Sydney dusk, chatter in the trees and, in one breathtaking sequence, give birth while hanging upside-down. But not everyone appreciates them: councils try to evict them with lights and noise, and protestors rail against them for being an unwanted nuisance. Drayton gives plenty of attention to both the flying foxes’ suffering and the wildlife carers who rescue them, rehydrate them, and offer them sanctuary. The plight of the flying foxes is made emblematic of the larger climate crisis; in one scene, they soar through the blue night to the soundtrack of Imogen’s solo violin composition performance, an ominous piece that grows in intensity, signalling a rising danger – and here Drayton cuts to a train full of coal, creeping along the tracks towards the camera.

Drayton’s coverage of her daughter begins with her at high school, as she expresses her concerns that high school cannot prepare Imogen for “a future that becomes more uncertain and more frightening with every passing day.” Over her final years of high school, Imogen moves away from classical composition into electronic music, uploads songs to Triple J Unearthed, and performs at local events and backyard parties. She’s soon opening for Sarah Blasko and Grimes, and being lauded by Triple J. Drayton’s footage of her daughter’s ascent to stardom sometimes seems incongruous with the rest of the film’s grim focus on environmental destruction, although Imogen is clearly passionate about the issue too. This juxtaposition seems to reflect Drayton’s mixed emotions – pride towards Imogen and her glowing success, unavoidably undercut with fear for her future. How do you hold onto joy when you’re afraid that everything’s about to fall apart?

The Weather Diaries also draws on the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke (1997), with Imogen wearing a Mononoke costume every day from age eight to 12 to demonstrate her identification with the forest-protecting warrior. Recreated animations of sequences from Princess Mononoke are spliced into the documentary to great effect, honouring Imogen’s continued reverence for the film (her performance name means ‘she-wolf’) and strikingly pairing sequences: in one example, the animated destruction of forest and villages is paired with footage of flying foxes dead from extreme heat, linking the fictional apocalypse to our reality.   

For all the despair in Drayton’s script – “Perhaps we’ll be the first species to record our own extinction,” she says at one point – her narration is curiously devoid of emotion, a measured, objective speech at odds with her emotive language. The effect is somewhat jarring – you’d expect audible anger – but perhaps Drayton felt more resigned than anything, by the end. It is Imogen who displays her grief and fear on camera, including a moving speech at the end of the film about how “it’s been hard for [her] to think about having a future.” The film ends with the New South Wales bushfires in December 2019, footage made more impactful by the viewers’ knowledge that it was only the beginning of the most horrific summer in Australia. Drayton has made a film heavy with rage and bewilderment towards humanity’s actions, but it is also radiant with love, and full of a desperate hope for the future her daughter struggles to envision.

The Weather Diaries screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020. More info here.

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Zoë Almeida Goodall is a film critic, editor and researcher based in Melbourne.

Zoë Almeida Goodall