Wanted: land to relocate the entire nation of Kiribati, which is slowly being submerged as the polar ice caps melt; CATALYST speaks with President Anote Tong.
Imagine if you were burdened with this news: Your entire country will be completely uninhabitable within this century due to rising sea levels. All your countrymen must find new homes and new livelihoods in foreign lands. Your culture, history, and your spiritual connection to the land will become echoes of the life you once knew. Now, imagine if you were president of this country. This is the reality faced by Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, and the main character of Anote’s Ark.
Directed by Montreal-based photographer and filmmaker Matthieu Rytz, Anote’s Ark premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kiribas’) is a low-lying Pacific island nation near the equator. Its 33 atolls span about the same width as the United States, and are just about a meter (3.28 ft.) above sea level.
Anote served as Kiribati’s president from 2003 to 2016 (the maximum term limit) and continues to search for a solution for all 100,000 residents of Kiribati who are destined to become some of the world’s first climate change refugees as their islands are inundated by rising sea water. Anote appeared on the Sundance Institute’s panel “The New Climate” along with other leaders of indigenous peoples whose way of life is currently being disrupted by the effects of climate change.
It is estimated that in the next 30-60 years Kiribati will be uninhabitable. “It’s too late for Kiribati,” says Anote in the film. “For a long time I thought there was nothing I could do. It was this depressing feeling I had to get over.”
The film follows Anote as he travels to U.N. negotiations, the Vatican and the Paris Climate Agreement talks. The film also explores some of the solutions he’s envisioned for his community. Anote purchased 20 square kilometers of land in Fiji as a contingency plan for his people. The very core of Anote’s mission is to maintain his people’s dignity by preventing them from becoming victims of global catastrophe, and being pro-active about the writing on the wall, or—a more apt metaphor—water on the horizon.
On Kiribati, hurricanes and typhoons are historically rare. But in recent years, residents are seeing a change . The documentary, filmed 2014-2017, was witness to an alarming number of destructive storms in Kiribati. “We thought we’d be immune to the troubles of the world, but we were wrong,” says Anote at the beginning of the film as an aerial shot pans across the crystal blue waters near Kiribati.
The film’s cinematography is a breathtaking tour of a paradise on Earth. A single raft bobs in the waves, isolated and at the mercy of the sea. There are scenes of tribal celebrations, life in low-ceilinged woven huts, young children playing. We meet Sermary —mother of six and an important secondary character of the film. She and her husband prepare a meal together for their family: laughing and splashing each other as they catch fish in the daylight, clean and cook the fish, and finally feast on their hard-earned meal by nightfall. Life on Kiribati appears simple and happy.
Rytz captures the magnitude of the beauty of the atoll nation of Kiribati, its people, and their indigenous way of life through stunning angles of the skinny strips of land that make up the majority of the Kiribati coastline. Generally, as with the case of rising coastlines in the U.S., the logical solution would be to move everything farther inland, but if we were to use the same logic for Kiribati’s narrow land, “we would fall off the other side,” Anote laughs in an interview. He shows me the Google Earth satellite image of his island, where his house is, and the sunrise he watches each morning while drinking his tea. When he isn’t traveling to Fiji, or for meetings of the Royal Commonwealth Society, of which he is the Chairman, the grandfather of 12 has his hands full back at home on the island of Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati.
Heavy with science and statistics, impact movies such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (which came out 12 years ago) and An Inconvenient Sequel (premiering at Sundance last year) are quite opposite to Rytz’ approach in Anote’s Ark. “We need those impact campaigns and films,” Rytz tells me. Anote’s Ark is more about climate justice and human rights than climate change itself. Rytz prefers to focus on the injustices suffered as a consequence of climate change. He wants to hold us accountable.
Anote and Sermary are both forced to respond to the perils of their nation at the hands of climate change. We see Sermary migrate to New Zealand on a lottery visa (only 75 Kiribati are allowed each year) to work manual labor jobs and scrape up enough money to bring her family back together. Anote is both meeting with high-level officials of neighboring nations, and building seawalls with sandbags with his own neighbors. The ocean and the land become characters, too, as Rytz juxtaposes footage of the paradise-like island with footage of the brutal, furious typhoons that tear the island homes to shreds.
Anote is not alone among leaders of indigenous peoples who are now mobilizing to bring awareness to their specific challenges and let the world know that climate change is happening here and now. “The New Climate” panel at the Egyptian Theatre, organized by Sundance Senior Programmer Hussein Currimbhoy brought together a group of native leaders who are feeling the effects of climate change first hand. Anote, along with Bartholomew Powaukee (Water Quality and Environmental Director for Ute Indian Tribe), and Tashka Yawanawa (Chief of the Yawanawa tribe in Acre, Brazil) sat on the panel, moderated by Janaya Khan (storyteller, organizer and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada).
All three panelists seemed to feel an enormous weight on their shoulders that the rest of the world is still catching up with. “‘I want to just be a normal guy,’” Tashka remembers thinking when he was a young man, knowing one day he would become chief. “There are so many people to be responsible for.” He became the youngest chief of the Yawanawa tribe at the age of 25.
“But then I realized, once you become chief, you are not just responsible for your people, but for the animals, and the forest, and those who cannot fight for themselves,” said Tashka. Now a middle-aged man, traveling around the world to share his story, one of a few of his people who can speak English, he’s come a long way from his timidity regarding the responsibility of leading his people.
“I’m not the voice of myself, I’m the voice of our elders. The voice of my grandmothers, the voice of my people. They keep replying, ‘You need to take care of this land,’” said Bart Powaukee, addressing the current bureaucratic tug-of-war over Bears Ears National Monument. The conversation between indigenous leaders and governing bodies continues to be an uneasy one.
Anote described his first two years in office and talking at the U.N. General Assembly when he came to address Kiribati’s dire situation. “When I spoke about it, I was frustrated, angry. Nobody listened,” said Anote, “I was beginning to learn that nobody wanted to hear you blame them for what they are responsible for. And so I began to change my approach, make it more of a collective responsibility.”
Despite Anote’s change of tactics developed during his years in office, Kiribati continues to face the same question: Where will all 100,000 people go when their land is reclaimed by the sea? “Climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time,” said Anote.
There was also a lightness in the air as the three panelists shared their own human experiences beyond climate change: educating the youth, maintaining an intrinsic spiritual connection with the land, racism, classism, gun control and water rights. The feeling was shared that these issues are somehow connected. “If I burn my forest, you might not get snow… I mean, we’re not from another planet!” said the smiling Tashka, which got a laugh and a grand applause from the audience.
New Climate panel moderator Janaya Khan, summed it up: “What we’re looking at is how to reframe climate change, so that it’s not just seen as a scientific issue, or as an indigenous issue only. It’s a people issue. It’s a human issue.”
Anote’s Ark is still awaiting distribution to the general public. In the meantime it will be used as a tool for Anote to show to various assemblies of governing bodies. The film does not offer a tidy ending, but rather is an ongoing story as Anote finishes his term as president and continues on his journey to find a home for his people.
For those seeking a happy conclusion, Rytz, Anote and Sermary leave that in our hands. There are no weak characters in this story, only those who do not act in response to it.
Sophie Silverstone is a CATALYST writer as well as our community outreach coordinator.