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The climate-change crisis often seems so vast and remote for many people that it’s difficult to assess an appropriate level of concern or response. For residents of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, however, the threat is hardly academic. As sea levels continue to rise, low-lying regions of the isolated archipelago have been inundated by seawater, while increasingly more frequent and powerful typhoons repeatedly flood the interior.
Kiribati’s former president Anote Tong spent much of his three terms between 2003 and 2016 attempting to raise global awareness regarding the climate threats facing his nation, particularly in the absence of significant financial resources. As Anote’s Ark demonstrates, his efforts met with mixed success, but they did manage to focus international concern for Kiribati’s future, as depicted in Matthieu Rytz’s probing documentary. Since its Sundance debut earlier this year, the film has become a regular on the international festival circuit, where it is likely to reach its widest audience before appearing on streaming services.
With typical elevations topping out at only about six feet, the islands of Kiribati are on the front line of global sea level rise. At least two uninhabited atolls in the far-flung chain have already been submerged and the prospect of further, uncontrolled inundation spurred Tong to begin confronting the threats of climate change in both regional and international political arenas.
Since gaining independence from the U.K. in 1979, Kiribati has struggled to provide for its 110,000-plus residents and remains one of the world’s least-developed nations, dependent on regular infusions of international aid. As sea levels continue to creep up and intensifying tropical cyclones batter the islands, inhabitants respond by building sandbagged seawalls by hand, even as their homes and businesses are regularly swamped by seasonal storms.
Among those affected, 35-year-old Sermary Tiare looks beyond Kiribati to support her family of six, after typhoons repeatedly destroy her modest home. By taking advantage of a New Zealand citizenship promotion program, she’s able to immigrate to Auckland and obtain a work permit. Her scant experience limits her opportunities to the low-wage agricultural sector, however, as she labors to raise the money to bring over the rest of her family from Kiribati.
Meanwhile, Tong traverses the global halls of power, meeting with politicians and world leaders including Pope Francis as he closes in on the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. His signature accomplishment involves persuading the Kiribati national legislature to purchase a sizable tract of land in Fiji as a fallback migration destination, since his nation is almost certain to become uninhabitable, perhaps even within a century.
In his directorial debut, renowned Canadian photographer Rytz brings an observant visual style to scenes of Tong’s island home and the frequent devastation it suffers. On the road with the president, he’s rather less sure-footed, relying on press events and public appearances to document Tong’s campaign for greater recognition of Kiribati’s challenges.
The film’s verite approach and lack of on-camera interviews unfortunately result in frequent information gaps, which could have been resolved with title cards, animation sequences or other narrative techniques. After a change in administrations, Rytz has fallen out with Kiribati’s political leaders, making him an inconvenient outsider, much like Tong.
Production companies: EyeSteelFilm?, Arkar Films
Director-writer-producer-director of photography: Matthieu Rytz
Executive producers: Bob Moore, Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross, Shari Sant Plummer, Shannon O’Leary Joy
Editors: Oana Suteu Khintirian, Mila Aung-Thwin
Music: Patrick Watson
Venue: Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
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