PARK CITY, Utah – Montreal photographer-turned-filmmaker Matthieu Rytz hopes his debut film will put the plight of the tiny Pacific Ocean island nation of Kiribati on the map.
That’s more important than the career boost he’ll get from his documentary “Anote’s Ark,” says Rytz, who was at the Sundance Film Festival for the movie’s world premiere on Friday night.
The Republic of Kiribati is in danger of being engulfed by rising water levels or wiped out by new patterns of extreme weather, all sparked by climate change.
Sitting alongside the film’s namesake and narrator, former Kiribati president Anote Tong, Rytz explained the documentary is more about climate justice than climate change, as it tells the story of the human toll from looming land loss from rising seas.
A year ago, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” had its world premiere at Sundance, where former U.S. vice-president Al Gore predicted extreme weather caused by climate change would create millions of displaced climate refugees. “Anote’s Ark” puts faces to the statistics.
“It’s not interviews with people telling you whatever is happening. It’s real life,” says Rytz, who stumbled on Kiribati’s story after completing a photojournalism project for the New York Times on a similar situation faced by the people of the threatened Kuna Yala islands, off Panama’s Caribbean coast.
Instead of focusing on numbers and scientists, he opts for a character-driven story about Tong and 36-year-old Sermary Tiare, a mother of six who has an opportunity to leave Kiribati — which has a population of about 100,000 — for a new life in New Zealand.
Rytz, who is also the cinematographer on the film, followed Tong over a four-year period as he tried to turn the world’s attention to the remote island. Kiribati gets overlooked because people tend to hone in on melting glaciers as evidence of climate change, says Tong.
“A lot of people miss this because they tend to focus on the northern hemisphere,” says Tong, who told the UN General Assembly in 2008: “yes, we sympathize with what’s happening with the polar bears, but don’t forget there are a lot of people in our part of the world who will lose their homes.”
The dignified, soft-spoken Tong is a realist about the “brutal reality” of what will happen to Kiribati.
A mass relocation, even one done with dignity, isn’t an ideal solution, he says. Other options that have been discussed include raising the nation’s islands or moving to futuristic floating cities.
About 20-square-kilometres of land on a Fiji island have been purchased for possible relocation, which gives a sense of comfort that something is being done, Tong says. However, the loss of culture and the deeply spiritual connection for the nation’s citizens would be irreversible, he adds.
That’s evident in how Tiare struggles to adjust to life in New Zealand.
“She’s not the same at the end of the movie,” says Rytz.
What the global community does today in response to climate change won’t save Kiribati, says Tong.
“But what (people) need to do is ensure we don’t continue to do the damage that we know we’re doing. We’ve got to understand what we are doing is not sustainable,” he says. “I ask no more than that.”
The documentary includes a speech to the UN by former U.S. president Barack Obama, who Tong joked has apologized to him for failing to get the hang of properly pronouncing Kiribati as “Kiribass.”
Rytz says he deliberately left current U.S. President Donald Trump — and his skeptical views on climate change — out of “Anote’s Ark.”
“We all know those clips of Donald Trump and we all hate them and at the end I was like, ‘He doesn’t deserve to have even one second of that movie,'” says Rytz.
Tong, who left office after his fourth term, continues to be an ambassador for climate change, although the new Kiribati government doesn’t support his initiatives and is “trying to follow another path,” says Tong.
“Our people are interested to know what is to be their future,” says Tong. “Will there be a place for their children?”
On the web: http://www.anotesark.com
— Telefilm Canada contributed to the cost of Linda Barnard’s trip to the Sundance Film Festival.