As Kiribati disappears, will the world take heed?

Kiribati, a sovereign nation in Micronesia, comprises 32 atolls and islands spanning all four hemispheres. Matthieu Rytz
8 May 2019

Matthieu Rytz will speak in a video address for the Global Landscapes Forum Kyoto on 12 May, which can be viewed online through the conference’s Digital Edition.

A mocha-skinned woman named Sermary Tiare stands on a windswept beach, gently stroking a quiet horse. A white woman, the horse’s owner, asks her where she’s from. Sermary answers Kiribati, pronounced “KEE-ree-bas.” The woman doesn’t know where that is.

A white-haired man, Anote Tong, swims in the lapping waters off Kiribati’s shores, his similarly toned skin that’s usually clothed in requisite head-of-state suits now reflecting the sun setting over the islands. As the Pacific island nation’s then president, it is his policy that allowed Sermary to relocate to New Zealand to pursue a life removed from the front lines of climate change. It is his policy that will allow her newborn child to grow up on lands higher than six feet above the rising sea and away from the target of new storm patterns.

Anote Tong, president of Kiribati from 2003 to 2016. Matthieu Rytz

It is his policy that has made him a climate change celebrity and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, touching the hearts of Pope Francis and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with impassioned eloquence about his country’s complete exposure to nature at its most destructive, and informing his own citizens of their options by couching the crisis in humor. Sermary understands why his policy is advantageous, but as she stands with the woman on New Zealand’s sands, all she wants is to return to her own.

Rather than a barrage of interviews and news segments on climate change and typhoon death tolls, Matthieu Rytz’s documentary Anote’s Ark, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2018, is an azure-soaked tapestry that follows the former president and his citizens as they internalize the fact that for their 110,000 people to survive, they cannot stay at home.

Here, Rytz tells Landscape News about his process making the film, to inform the world about the nation’s existence – and ominous reality – before it disappears.

Photographer and filmmaker Matthieu Rytz. Matthieu Rytz

You first went to Kiribati on assignment as a photojournalist for the New York Times. What did you know about it before that?

I didn’t know it was a country, and I didn’t know much about the Pacific as a whole. The way we learn about geography, the maps we have in school are basically the West coast of the Americas on the left side, on the right you have Japan, and sometimes in between you have those small boxes where there’s Fiji or other islands, but they’re basically not on the map.

I think it’s a very interesting metaphor for how we are with this planet. We’re very Anthropocentric beings, and all we see is our own little world. Understanding the ocean and the people who live in the ocean – and realizing that the ocean and those people are in big, big trouble – I think is a very important thing, otherwise we don’t have much hope on this planet. Without the ocean, we basically don’t.

What was it like to spend so much time with Anote Tong?

Through the process we got very close. He’s a bit like my grandpa now. In the beginning I didn’t know him so much, and I was very impressed by the way he speaks about climate change issues. But as a journalist and documentarian, I keep this objective distance, like, ‘Okay but he’s a politician, but who is the man?’ That’s what I wanted to break – getting to the man.

It took quite a long time, because even when I tried to make interviews, it was so automatic. His brain – it would click, boom, the same discourses all of the time. When you are the head of state for 12 years, you’re so used to being a politician, learning how to say things in the right time, right way, right place.

When I really got to know him not as a politician, it was so clear that he was a great leader and a great man with all those values you see in the movie, and all the things people believe about him are true. He has no difference between his own life, family life and what he’s trying to do for his nation.

Was there a specific moment when your relationship with him changed?

It was a very important point when he stepped down as president. He all of a sudden became someone I could speak to directly, go to his home. As a president, even when he wanted to get closer or spend time with me, he couldn’t because of protocol. When traveling or in the U.S., the private security shut me down. It changed after he stepped down.

Former president Anote Tong has said that the Paris Agreement on climate change came too late. Matthieu Rytz

Between the time spent traveling with him and in production work, how much of the five years that it took you to make this film was actually spent in Kiribati?

Maybe around six months. I went back and forth six or seven times, and every time was about two weeks.

And you witnessed major weather events there during this time?

I was on my way to Kiribati when a major storm hit Fiji, with winds over 300 kilometers per hour. Most of Fiji was destroyed, as well as neighboring islands. I was on the first commercial plane that reached Fiji after the first storm. So some images in the movie are two days after one of the biggest disasters in the South Pacific. It was terrible, but I was lucky in a way I could not plan, because I could get that story.

The shift in the world weather I think is scarier than the rising sea in the short-term. With hurricanes and typhoons, the places in the South get badly hit, but they are solid land countries – Fiji, Vanuatu. Obviously they get damaged, but they can take a storm. They can rebuild after.

Kiribati is just on the equator, so it has very mild, calm weather. And now what you see is storms coming closer and closer to the equator, and that’s very scary. If ever a storm of that force will hit Kiribati, nothing will be left.

Did you give help on the ground? Or did you take a strict journalistic approach, observing and capturing your footage without interfering?

I studied anthropology, so my approach was extremely strict, even more so than journalists in terms of the way you relate and tell stories. But it was a challenge because you have to show drama, so I didn’t care about showing the disasters at the beginning because I focused on the characters. I think the human story brings so much more than just showing the storms and the resilience and the climate justice story.

That’s the whole issue – the people of Kiribati are moving away from their own land, and few of them are going to New Zealand or Australia; most are going to Fiji. But then you see Fiji is very badly hit by climate change too. What happens in Kiribati doesn’t stay in Kiribati. Climate change is happening there now, but it will follow elsewhere. We are all affected if we don’t do something now.

Sermary Tiare plays with one of her children in Kiribati. Matthieu Rytz

What do you hope this film affects?

There’s not much hope for Kiribati in terms of trying to save the country. They’re basically doomed as a nation. So my goal is more of a call for climate justice. We all know climate change is real. Even deniers will not stand much longer. Now, when mass migration is already starting, the question is of moral issues. Eventually the climate change community will have to make decisions on who can live or not. Basically we are about to build an apartheid.

The film concludes with Tong’s presidency coming to an end and a new president stepping into office, who since has denounced climate change and redacted many of the policies Tong put into place. What is the local sentiment toward the new administration?

It’s very divided. People who have more education and understand the science are very, very disappointed. Most of the people in Kiribati are still living in outer islands and don’t have access to scientific or foreign education. The only education they have is through the church, and evangelical and Mormon churches are taking more and more ground. So for government to get support and stay elected, they have to take the church’s point of view, which is as a denier. They don’t deny climate change, but they deny that people have to move.

President Tong had been building a policy called “migration with dignity,” which is a program to help people of Kiribati move away from the country. He’d been working on it for 20 years together with partners in other countries. But then you have a new government coming in and trying to stop all the policies and telling people not to worry, everything is good, and God will take care of the island.

Now, they basically have stopped allowing any journalists or photographers into the country. I’ve been arrested myself, deported. All my gear – computer, camera, hard drive – is still in Kiribati. I’ve heard of at least 20 other similar cases. So, it’s as bad as it can get. Shutting down media is very dangerous because it’s the first step to a dictatorship. I’m really hoping the next election can change the way they’re going. It’s a small country, and on the international stage, no one really cares.

More than 95 percent of Kiribatians identify as Christian. Matthieu Rytz

It sounds like this is verging on a humanitarian crisis.

Totally. And that’s the problem. It’s what Tong has been advocating for the last 20 years. We should know what’s coming and prepare for what’s coming and not wait for the crisis to hit us and be climate refugees in a state of emergency. We can plan ahead. The new government has destroyed a lot of this planning.

Climate change and loss of biodiversity are so big and so urgent, jeopardizing our existence on this planet. It should not be a political agenda anymore, it should not be left or right. It should be an international call for our survival that has nothing to do with politics, and we can all agree on that. I guess at one point it will be, but maybe it will be too late.

Tong has been accompanying you as you tour the film. How is he using this opportunity to continue his agenda?

He’s very happy with the movie. He’s trying to retire now, and for him it’s an obvious legacy. We made about 90 festivals around the planet and are still showing a lot. We’re also targeting a lot of influential events. The last time I was with Tong, we were on Richard Branson’s Necker Island with only about 30 people, but all extremely influential in terms of wealth and network. I think the focus now is on policymakers and politicians.

What did you learn from making this film?

It’s my first movie, and basically I learned how to make movies. I started as a photographer, but now I can tell stories using movies as a tool. And for me that’s very important, because I don’t know if I could do anything else but tell the world important stories.

On the more personal level, being so close to the people of Kiribati for such a long time, I feel like Kiribati is a new home for me. It made me very connected to the ocean. And that’s weird because I grew up in the Swiss Alps, where I was very connected to the mountains. But now I’m thinking about moving and being based in New Zealand. So I think it influenced my life on a very deep level, wanting to get closer to the island nations and to the ocean as a whole.



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