The title of ethnographic photographer/filmmaker Matthieu Rytz’ documentary film debut, Anote’s Ark, is succinct, even urgently so. With the two words, even before watching the film, the spectator is already confronted with two intertwined subjects: one, the island republic of Kiribati, whose geographical location is right smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and whose former president was Anote Tong; and two, an allusion to a flood narrative and the post-flood migration and/or survival of a people. Though less polemical than reflective, the two strands of narratives that drive the film – one with President Tong and the other with Semrary, an I-Kiribati woman – give faces and lives to the very real and alarming consequences of climate change, which is a reality that is here and now, not later and reversible. Through thoughtful use of audio interviews juxtaposed with observational-style footage fleshing out its constant weaving between the narrative strands, Rytz and company manage to avoid the monotony – inaction, even – of the sit-down, talking head interview. Such a stylistic choice is significant and apt, for neither President Tong nor Semrary has the time to sit down and simply contemplate life in their native country, given what awaits it as a space of habitation despite its geographical isolation: drowning within this century due to rising sea levels brought about by climate change.
In truth, Anote’s Ark’s seemingly mellow tone masks a necessarily combative air. When President Tong states in an audio interview, while on the image track are the ravages of Cyclone Winston that hit the Fiji Islands but also Kiribati and Tuvalu in 2016 (the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded to hit the southern hemisphere, with winds traveling up to 300km/hr), if developed countries are doing something that negatively impact another country, and if the former knows that doing so has dire consequences for that other country yet still continues to do what it does – which is amplified carbon footprints – what is that if not something akin to war? Following through with this framing of his country’s fate, a country that should technically be sheltered from hurricanes because of its location but has of late experienced them due to shifts in weather patterns that are, you guessed it, brought about by climate change – President Tong and Semrary are undeniably on the frontlines of a war against inaction by the international community.
Part of inaction is certainly inattention, demonstrated in a key moment that could be missed if the spectator herself is inattentive. At the conclusion of a remote video interview for a news program, in footage usually edited out due to its ‘behind-the-scenes’ quality, President Tong takes off his mic and speaks casually to the crew member who helps him. President Tong asks him what he thinks of the interview. The crew member casually replies that he was unable to pay attention to most of what he said since he was distracted by other duties in the course of the video interview. However, the crew member tries to make amends by stating that the snippets that he did hear seemed fine, that President Tong talked about ‘good things’: that his country is gradually being engulfed underwater and its inhabitants must find a land to inhabit for survival, to which the international community has yet to provide a response. Such a throwaway moment ironically encapsulates all too sadly, all too explicitly, the whys and hows of Kiribati’s endangered status in relation to faraway highly developed/industrialised countries and their rate of consumption/waste.
While President Tong takes his country’s impending disappearance to the international community by way of human rights councils, United Nations meetings, conferences, and media interviews/spots, to stimulate not just conversation but more importantly action during his tenure as Kiribati’s president from 2003 to 2016, Semrary presents but one example among I-Kiribati citizens of confronting/responding to her country’s situation, especially in the wake of the aforementioned tropical cyclones: premature migration to New Zealand and becoming a part of the I-Kiribati diaspora.
If President Tong presents the policy-oriented, diplomatic, international aspect of the situation, then Sermary, her husband Ato, and their children present the emotional, practical, and local one. For example, through cell phone footage shot in the aftermath of 2015’s Cyclone Pam by Semrary, her family, and/or her community, they and the film collectively provide first-hand experiences of what will gradually happen to their homeland. Following said cyclone, Semrary becomes one of a number of I-Kiribati citizens to receive a PAC (Pacific Access Category permit/visa), enabling her to migrate to New Zealand and begin to establish a new home base for herself and her family.
Though at one point in the film Semrary and President Tong meet at a local event, such a potentially dramatic or triumphant point is not structured in the film to be such, as it is just not among the film’s concerns. When it does happen, it simply happens (though Semrary does express her excitement at having met the president); because life for Semrary must go on, and the same for President Tong and his activism. In this way, the film does not offer a convenient point of consolation or respite from the overall issues of the eventual migration of an island nation, the potential fading of the nation’s culture that is so intimately tied to its geography, and the lack of response/humanitarian aid from other nations. In fact, neither narrative strand is rendered dramatic for the sake of drama, which notably de-touristises/exoticises the footage of not only the idyllic waters and land of Kiribati but its cultural rituals.
Anote’s Ark was shown as part of the Documentary Feature Competition in this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on May 6.