“”ANOTE’S ARK”— What if your country was swallowed up by the sea?”


“What if your country was swallowed”by the sea?”

Amos Lassen

The Pacific island nation of Kiribati is one of the most remote places on the planet.  It is far-removed from the pressures of modern life and yet it is one of the first countries that must confront imminent annihilation from sea-level rise. Kiribati president Anote Tong tries to find options, from mass migration to building underwater cities. But the water grows higher, and citizens are fleeing the island, leaving behind 4000 years of Kirabati culture.

“Anote’s Ark” captures the shifting dynamics of climate change while at the same time give us  a portrait of the Kiribati people that reveals their strength as they face the waters head on. At first, director Matthieu Rytz’s documentary  seems like it’s going to be yet another climate-change film, created in hopes that the right people see it and start to set us on the right path before all is ruined for future generations. It does tackle the subject of climate change, but it focuses on a real-world situation that can be witnessed right now. 

This isn’t a film about whether climate change is real; it’s a film about an island nation of 100,000 people that is on the verge of oblivion due to rising sea levels. It is punctuated with beautiful drone shots and hypnotic native music and follows the life of the president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, as he pleads with the world’s nations to adopt environmental standards in order to halt, or even just reverse, the damage that has been done to our planet. Tong istrying to work with countries like Fiji and Australia on creating an escape plan for when his people are forced to leave their homes after the ocean swallows them up. Two villages on the islands have already been devoured, and as it stands now – by the end of the century – the entire country will be no more.

We get a fascinating look at this small country, the dedication of its people and its president, and the positive steps for change that become laid out due to the Paris Agreement. The film was msde before Trump was elected as the U.S. president and attempted to leave the agreement and just before, as the film states preceding the end credits, the Kiribati president elected after Tong’s term began working to undo all the progress he made. 

Director Rytz spends a lot of time around the island, showing its amazing beaches and tranquil landscapes and introducing us to its people – connecting us on a personal level to Kiribati, which lies on the equator and straddles both hemispheres.

We see President Anote Tong doing his best to tell the world about the problems in his country – not so people will stop driving cars or change their way of life to stop climate change – in hopes that other countries will help when the time comes. At the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, President Tong’s government negotiates with New Zealand to allow some Kiribati’s citizens to purchase land and emigrate each year. 

These are pro-active things he CAN do, because he cannot hold back the ocean. We also see these changes through the eyes of Sermary, a mother who wins one who emigrated to New Zealand. Currently, when a storm comes, the ocean floods into her house. She is glad it happens during the day because she worries they might not have been able to get the children out in time had they all been sleeping. These aren’t the kinds of fears most mothers have to face. Worst of all, due to high airfare cost, Sermary must emigrate to New Zealand alone; leaving her 6 young children for 6 months in order to raise the money needed to bring them over.

With drones we are able to see the Earth from above thus showing us what we’ve been doing to it – how we’ve been changing it, without regard for natural processes. Being able to sweep over the ocean and see these islands from above made me realize how small they are.

Imagine if you were  given this kind of news: “Your entire country will be completely uninhabitable within this century due to rising sea levels. All your countrymen must find new homes and new livelihoods in foreign lands. Your culture, history, and your spiritual connection to the land will become echoes of the life you once knew. Now, imagine if you were president of this country. This is the reality faced by Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, and the main character of Anote’s Ark.

Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kiribas’) consists of 33 atolls that span about the same width as the United States, and is just about a meter (3.28 ft.) above sea level. Anote served as Kiribati’s President from 2003 to 2016 (the maximum term limit) and now continues to search for a solution for all 100,000 residents of Kiribati who are destined to become some of the world’s first climate change refugees as their islands are inundated by rising sea water. Anote also appeared on the Sundance Institute’s panel “The New Climate” along with other leaders of indigenous peoples whose way of life is currently being disrupted by the effects of climate change.

 “It’s too late for Kiribati,” says Anote in the film. “For a long time I thought there was nothing I could do. It was this depressing feeling I had to get over.”

The film follows Anote as he travels to U.N. negotiations, the Vatican and the Paris Climate Agreement talks. The film also explores some of the solutions he’s envisioned for his community. The very core of Anote’s mission is to maintain his people’s dignity by preventing them from becoming victims of global catastrophe, and being pro-active about the writing on the wall–or–water on the horizon.

The film’s cinematography is a breathtaking tour of a paradise on earth. A single raft bobs in the waves, isolated and at the mercy of the sea. There are scenes of tribal celebrations, life in low-ceilinged woven huts, young children playing. Early scenes show Sermary — an important secondary character of the film and mother of six — and her husband preparing a meal for their family: laughing and splashing each other as they catch fish in the daylight, clean and cook the fish, and finally feast on their hard-earned meal by nightfall. Life on Kiribati appears simple and happy.

The ocean and the land become characters too, as Rytz’ juxtaposes footage of the paradise-like land with footage of the brutal, furious typhoons that tear the island homes to shreds. Tong hopes that with this film that there are people who will actually be affected by what they see here

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