Scenes from an Unmade Documentary (Ben Brooker)

1. The fish and the bag (0’ 51”)

Underwater shot of a whale shark swimming alongside a plastic bag.

Graphic: The Gulf of Tadjoura, near Djibouti.

The plastic bag twists and shimmers. The whale shark’s mouth hoves open in a silent scream.

Voice over: Everything from this whale shark to microscopic zooplankton is ingesting plastic and microfibers. It has been predicted that by 2050 there will be more pieces of plastic in the seas than fish.

2. Island of plastic (2’ 55”)

Long, static shot of coastline covered in marine debris.

Graphic: South Sentinel Island, Bay of Bengal.

The sun rises over a distant hillock. In the foreground, covering the beach’s white sand: a constellation of bottles, fishing lines, aluminium cans, freezer blocks, clothing, and plastic refuse of all kinds. Here and there, high visibility life jackets jut out of the rubbish.

Longer shot from commercial boat at sea. The whole beach is covered in plastic.

Visual editing: Cut to medium shot of bare-chested fisherman on boat. He looks directly into the camera, remaining surprisingly still. Water splatters the lens as the boat rises and falls roughly.

Longer shot of boat. The fisherman heaves his net into the water. 

Visual editing: Cut to drone footage of the beach. The shot rises slowly, sweeping forwards over the debris, which seems to go on forever.

Visual editing: Cut to close shot of dead tern on beach. Flies hover above the carcass. Its stomach, ripped open by scavengers, is full of plastic.    

Slow zoom out to reveal debris, which surrounds the tern. The only thing that stands out is the small, faded orange float from a fishing net.

Voiceover: The Marine Conservancy estimates decomposition rates of most plastic debris found on coasts are: Styrofoam cup, 50 years; plastic beverage holder, 400 years; disposable nappy, 450 years; plastic bottle, 450 years; fishing line, 600 years.

During voiceover: Alternating frames, in medium or close shots, of the debris covering the beach. In the final shot, held for slightly longer than the others, a sign in multiple languages. The English text reads: ‘Please dispose of your rubbish properly. This island is a nature sanctuary’.

Visual editing: Cut to two terns in flight. They are briefly silhouetted against the rising sun.

3. Living in landfill (3’ 34”)

Wide shot of a sprawling landfill site. Human figures move among the waste. Their small, crudely built shacks, roofs held down by bricks and tyres, are scattered around. In places, thick, black smoke billows from the refuse. An excavator sits motionless, chained up. It looks like a dinosaur in a prehistoric landscape.  

Visual editing: Cut to medium shot of a dark-haired woman in a long dress. Bangles encircle her left arm from her wrist almost to her elbow. She holds a stick with a hook at one end. Four, five, six scavenger boys enter the shot. They notice the camera and begin to smile, point, laugh. The woman sees the camera and laughs too. Most of her teeth are missing.

Voice over: Around the world, 30 million people live and work in rubbish tips like this one. Every day they comb the trash for what they need, and what they can sell. Their life expectancy is about half yours or mine but these landfill sites are not so different from our communities. There are homes here, schools — even shops.

Visual editing: Cut to boy of no more than six carrying a polystyrene box, the kind takeaway fish and chips comes in. He is smiling. Inside his box is a bag of blood.

Voiceover: This boy has found a bag of blood. He is smiling because he is going to eat it — his only sustenance for the day. The common cold and diarrhoea are common here but nothing more serious. The scavengers, many of whom have spent all of their lives here, appear to be immune to certain diseases. 

The rubbish comes mostly from a nearby tourist city where rooms are over $2,000 a night. Half a million people live in the city, most of them in ignorance of this dump. Not long ago there was a landslide here, caused some said by the construction of a bio-gas plant nearby. Nobody knows how many people died or were injured.

During voiceover: Cut to wide shot of landfill site. No people are visible, but the roof of a shanty flaps precariously in the wind. Cut to medium shot of woman, smiling, with baby on her hip. Zoom to baby. The baby has no eyelashes.

4. The swampers (4’ 01”)

Shot of white command truck against black landscape. The scene looks odd, as though the truck has been superimposed onto whatever is behind it. Background sounds of a petrol generator. Two men in casual clothes, smoking, enter the shot. They chat in French. One discards his cigarette and climbs the stairs to the truck. The other follows, still smoking. The 1st man turns around, stops the 2nd man, speaks to him animatedly. He points at the ground. The 2nd man throws away his cigarette. The 1st man shakes his head, smiles slightly.

Visual editing: Cut to truck interior. The men are donning white hazmat suits. Two flamethrowers lean against the wall. One of the men points to them.

1st man: Savez-vous qui a fait cela? Almus Dink. Il a vendu… qu’est-ce que c’était? [French translation in subtitles: Do you know who made these? Almus Dink. He sold… what was it?]

2nd man: Je ne sais pas [I don’t know].

1st man: Un million je pense. Il a vendu un million de lance-flammes. Portefeuille incroyable. Il parle de construire un atmotrack d’Abu Dhabi à New York. Incroyable. Almus creuse à travers la terre avec ses grosses machines. Je suppose que nous sommes similaires. Nous faisons un nouveau chemin aussi. Un chemin à travers toute la saleté, la noirceur. [A million I think. He sold a million flamethrowers. Amazing portfolio. He’s talking about building an atmotrack from Abu Dhabi to New York. Amazing. Almus burrows through the earth with his big machines. I guess we’re similar. We’re making a new path too. A path through all the filth, the blackness].

2nd man: C’est pour l’armée que j’ai entendu. L’armée doit passer par ici. [It’s for the army I heard. The army needs to come through here].

Visual editing: Cut to medium shot of men with flamethrowers in front of black wall. In their hazmat suits they look, like the truck, as though they have been overlayed by a special effect. The men pour flame onto the wall. It begins to dissolve, sloughing off in great, fiery strips, to reveal more of the same underneath: layer upon layer of compressed rubbish, fused and blackened and glassy like volcanic rock. As the wall disintegrates, the men disappear in a cloud of greenish haze.

Voiceover: This haze is filled with particles that can permanently damage human lungs in a matter of minutes.

Voiceover (1st man): Je pense que c’est surtout les pneus. Le mur. Les butineuses les brûlent pour extraire le fer mais ils ne savent pas ce qu’ils font. Ils ne portent ni tailleurs, ni masques. Nous savons ce que nous faisons. Mon père était un pompier. [Mostly it’s tyres I think. The wall. Foragers burn them to extract the iron but they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t wear suits, masks, anything. We know what we’re doing. My father was a fireman].

Visual editing: Cut to shot of large drone in flight, cannoning some kind of liquid onto the landscape below.

Voiceover: This is an experimental haze-suppression drone. Nobody knows if it works.

Visual editing: Cut to medium shot of men sitting on steps of truck, smoking. The haze has dispersed. The men’s suits are peeled to their waists, exposing grimy undershirts. The arms of the 2nd man are rivered with swollen blood vessels. His chest is visibly scarred.

Voiceover (2nd man): J’étais un butin pour… je ne sais pas. Deux ans? J’ai perdu ma vie. Je ne savais pas quoi faire d’autre. Je suis tellement malade. La brume m’a presque tué. Mes poumons ont été remplacés en premier. Puis mon foie. Puis mon coeur. Je dois subir une autre opération. Une greffe. Je ne sais pas quand je pourrai me le permettre. [I was a forager for… I don’t know. Two years? I lost my living. I didn’t know what else to do. I got so sick. The haze almost killed me. My lungs were replaced first. Then my liver. Then my heart. I’m due another operation. A graft. I don’t know when I’ll be able to afford it].  

Visual editing: Cut to extreme close up of 1st man, smoking.

Voiceover (1st man): Dans le vieux sud américain, un homme dont le travail consistait à dégager un chemin à travers une forêt était connu sous le nom de «swamper». C’est ce que nous sommes. Parfois, la forêt était dans un marécage, d’où le nom. Ici, où nous sommes — difficile de dire si c’est plus une forêt ou plus d’un marécage. Je pense que nous allons rester ici un moment. [In the old American south a man whose job it was to clear a path through a forest was known as a ‘swamper’. That’s what we are. Sometimes the forest was in a swamp, hence the name. Here, where we are — hard to tell if it’s more of a forest or more of a swamp. I think we’re going to be here for a while].

5. A series of fractured images (3’ 00”)

Music: Ballad of Distances, Pt. 2 by Stars of the Lid.

Alternating frames, in medium, long, or close shots, of:

1.     A colossal squid that has beached itself. Expired medicines are pouring from its beak. Children pick over them, sometimes fighting.  
2.    An unknown substance spurting from a hole in an abandoned football field. A person of indeterminate sex and age catches the substance in an old tin and pours it into a different hole.
3.    A cityscape at dusk. The air is sea green. Whole blocks go dark, then light up, then go dark.
4.    A shipping container wedged in a partially submerged cave. A family of twelve is playing with the point-of-sale kits the container is full of. The tide is coming in.
5.    A mosaic of satellite images of the Arctic Ocean. There is no sea ice.
6.    A group of people milling beneath a broken-down electronic billboard. The people seem to be waiting for something.
7.    Military police guarding a disused factory. Bored, they occasionally fire their guns through the broken windows and watch, indifferent, as their bullets catch fire in the air.
8.    Roadways overcoming tree roots. Tree roots overcoming roadways. Roadways overcoming roadways.  
9.    A lightless hospital corridor strewn with biomedical waste. The waste glows with its own phosphorescence, a luminous blue. Some of it seems to be moving.
10. The flooded basement of an abandoned shopping mall. Faint, dappled light from an unknown source. An escalator going nowhere. A half-submerged sign reading, in English: ‘Continuous electronic surveillance for your safety’. A single fish, shaped like a human hand clenched into a fist, punches itself along in the dark water.


Ben Brooker is an Adelaide-based writer, editor, critic, essayist, bookseller, and playwright. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, RealTime, The Lifted Brow, Daily Review, Verity La, Witness, ArtsHub, and others. In 2016-17 Ben was an inaugural Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellow and in 2018-19 was writer-in-residence at The Mill.