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Filmmaker dies in helicopter crash

David Tiley

John Davis, killed in a helicopter accident with Richard and Carolyn Green, was a veteran documentary filmmaker with a remarkably energetic life.
Filmmaker dies in helicopter crash

Image: the campaign photo for John Davis.  

An EC135 helicopter owned and piloted by a businessman turned environmental photographer Richard Green crashed in Watagan National Park on Saturday 7 November 2015. He died with his wife, Carolyn Green, a graphic artist, and John Davis, a filmmaker and Greens activist.

Reports suggest they had been filming environmental damage near the Whitehaven coal mine at Werris Creek, on the way back from a demonstration in Breeza, near Tamworth, against a coal mine owned by Shenhua's Watermark open cut coal mine on the Liverpool Plain. 

Davis was working on a documentation project which took him across NSW and up to Gladstone in Queensland. He was tracking environmental degradation, exposing the realities of open cut coal mines, and recording the threat to the Liverpool Plains. He pioneered the use of drones to track the impact of humans in even the most remote locations.

According to retired CSIRO physicist Dr Brian Spies, 'As people, John and his wife Felicity are two of my most favourite people in the whole world. As a human being, John had a real passion for life and people. He really did have his head together, and understood integrity, and lived by his values'. 

Recently, Davis and fellow scientist David Sentinella have built and maintained a website about a future beyond coal, which has over five hundred pages of logically nested information rigorously based on science. As Sentinella said, 'We worked together on many things. He was a doer and wanted things to happen. I think we have a job to do to carry on the legacy of what he was doing. The information was very important to him and now I have a duty to keep it on.' 

John Davis was 71 years old, and had a BSc in chemical engineering from the University of NSW. In 1960, he joined CSR in Sydney and worked on sugar refining and research into building materials for the next six years. But he was really living a double life.

Around 1965, he was part of the first expedition to climb Ball's Pyramid, a huge shaft of rock sticking up out of the sea off Lord Howe Island. He was also an active member of the Citizens Military Force, taught rock climbing, and was head of the NSW volunteer rock rescue organisation. 

 John Davis (centre) celebrates the Ball's Peak success with Bryden Allan and David Witham

In 1966 he became an education producer at the ABC, and made around a hundred 20 minute programs, mostly on physics and chemistry, and produced Behind the News for two and a half years. 

At the same time, he was a partner in Expedition Films, which made five adventure documentaries in Papua New Guinea, including People of the Warm Mud Mountains which was directed by Michael Pearce and won the Sydney Film Festival Documentary Prize. He led a filmed ascent of Ball's Pyramid, from which we have startling photographs of John Davis as a human fly, hanging off rock faces with a tripod and a 16mm camera. The fifty minute film Cats Among the Coral followed a catamaran from Port Douglas to Indonesia. It was co-directed with Gary Steer, with Caroline Kiss producing with them. The writer was Bob Connolly.   

He also found time to write two books which are a lovely reflection of the times, 'Science as you go, in the Outdoors', and 'Rope and Rucksack'. He cofounded and published the climbing magazine Rucksack. 

In 1984, he left the ABC to start an educational video company, Classroom Video, which he and Felicity ran until 2005, when they sold their assets to Video Education Australia, and transferred themselves to a new company, Science Films. Over the years the companies made over four hundred videos, some winning prizes. At their peak, they had forty staff in Australia and overseas, and started offices in the UK, France, NZ, Canada, USA, and China, which ultimately sold over a million videos to twenty thousand schools, and used an early form of Video on Demand software.

At the same time, he continued his professional career as a chemist, which took him further and further into environmental science. In 1973 he worked on commissioning a gas plant and tendering for a sewage treatment plant for Humphries and Glasgow in Sydney. Two years later he set up the Good Oil Company to recycle waste oil. And he went to Canada in 1979 as research director for twelve months on extracting energy from biomass. 

As Sentinella explained, 'His priority ultimately wasn't making films. It was conveying knowledge, conveying a very important message. The films are beautiful, and he enjoyed making them, and he enjoyed the achievement, but I don't think it was his prime purpose.'

He had the science, and the communication skills and the personality to take on the politics of environmentalism. He was the Greens candidate for Davidson in the 2011 NSW election, while his wife Felicity campaigned for the adjacent electorate of Pittwater. His candidate page on Facebook paints a picture of an active, loving man with two grown children and four grandchildren. There is a beautiful  shot of John and Felicity at Cape Pillars in Tasmania. 

He was known as a ball of energy. He buit his house on a ridge, using his climbing skills as his kids scampered up and down the scaffolding. He built boats and sailed, shimmied up trees, helped his two kids to build their houses, grew his network of friends with parties and poetry readings and plunging into rivers and teaching other peoples' kids about the bush. He built a shed with a huge wood turning machine where he crafted the stumps of ruined trees into furniture. 

As Sentinella said, 'He was the best Australian you could think of. He was a teacher and educator, always at it. He had a most remarkable life, and I mean that with a great deal of passion.'

The climbing community is mourning too. 'A good life, well lived', wrote a forum member.

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The ABCThe SMH and Daily Telegraph have articles. Dick Smith was a friend of all of them, and was on the expedition which John Davis beat to the top of Ball's Peak. 

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub.