Park City, Utah — While the rest of the world either ignores climate change or frets about what might happen some day in the distant future when sea levels rise, Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati, a tiny island nation in the Pacific Ocean, is desperately concerned about it here and now.
Kiribati is a collection of minuscule coral atolls strung through the sea near the equator like so many pearls on a necklace. And with an average elevation of less than two metres, the best scientific evidence available indicates that climate change will see the country wiped off the face of the Earth this century. Several of its islands have already disappeared under the sea, and others are at immediate risk of being submerged.
This is the point at which Anote’s Ark, a new documentary from Montreal-based director and cinematographer Matthieu Rytz, picks up the story of Tong and his efforts to find a solution to Kiribati’s existential crisis. His struggle is to find a solution that will have his people survive what is coming with dignity, rather than as climate refugees.
Rytz (seen at left) is entirely successful in portraying Tong’s quiet determination to help his people. In scene after scene, the politician comes across as articulate and knowledgeable, infusing his most impassioned statements with a hint of humour.
Speaking at the World Humanitarian Summit in Auckland, N.Z., in July 2015, Tong makes it clear that Kiribati does not have enough time or resources to save its islands. Its residents will have to move, either now or later.
“The reality is,” he declares, “in the years ahead, we will be looking for somewhere to live because we don’t have enough to time to evolve into fish. We cannot swim for the rest of our lives.”
For this reason, Tong’s government purchased land in neighbouring Fiji as a possible refuge for some Kiribatis. But the entire population cannot move there. That leaves the question: Which country will take in his citizens?
So far, New Zealand has allowed in some Kiribatis, and the film follows one young mother, Sermary, who moves to Auckland without her husband, Ato, and her children to get started on a new life for them there. With her home in Kiribati already being flooded by seawater, it seems impossible their lives could continue there indefinitely.
The story of Sermary (who speaks in her native tongue almost completely) and her family is a bit hard to follow, a problem that could be partially addressed with more captions. Tong, on the other hand, speaks perfect English (he was educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science), and Rytz’s portrayal of Tong's urgent endeavours — his endless travelling to seek help for his country’s plight — is clear.
The film suffers from choppy editing and goes down some side alleys that seem unnecessary. And with its surfeit of drone shots over the aquamarine sea, and footage taken half in and half out of the waves (see photo, left), you may come away feeling waterlogged. But surely that was Rytz’s point.
In the end, though, we care most about the characters we have met in the film. And that’s the way it should be, according to Tong. As he speaks at the humanitarian summit in Auckland, he asks in Maori: “What is the most important thing this world? It is people; it is people; it is people.”
Tong wants us to know that the problems of his tiny island nation are not irrelevant to those of who live in seemingly safe cities, thousands of kilometres from his rising water.
“What is going to happen to us,” he says, “is going to be the fate of the rest. It will follow.”
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Anote Tong, president of Kiribati from 2003 to 20016, in a still taken from Matthieu Rytz's new documentary, Anote's Ark.
All photos by Matthieu Rytz/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A still from Anote's Ark shows the low-lying nature of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. It's at risk of being submerged.