Photographer Matthieu Rytz turned to documentary filmmaking to tell the story of an island that will soon be eradicated by rising sea levels.
What if your country were literally going to be swallowed by the sea? It’s the central question of Canadian filmmaker Matthieu Rytz’s excellent documentary, Anote’s Ark, about how climate change is set to completely flood the Pacific Island of Kiribati. It’s a totally flat country of 100,000 that’s surrounded by ocean, meaning there’s no such thing as a place inland to move.
Climate change and the subsequent rising sea levels are the culprit, but the film focuses on the devastating effect it is having and will have on the Kiribati citizens rather than the science behind why it’s happening. Shot over four years, from 2013 to 2017, the film follows former Kiribati president Anote Tong on his world tour — with stops at the UN and multiple climate change conferences — to educate foreigners about the situation in Kiribati and to encourage climate change adaptation funding. It’s real. It’s happening. And we have to stop what we can, even though we’ve already committed to significant damage that’s irreversible.
The film also follows a Kiribati woman, Sermary Tiare, who decides to immigrate to New Zealand in search of security. The Western world offers opportunities and financial stability, but it comes at the expense of Sermary’s home, her culture, and her sense of belonging. In the predominantly white former British colony, she’ll always be an outsider from away. Her story is likely to become increasingly common.
Anote’s Ark lets us see and feel firsthand what life is like in gorgeous Kiribati. Rytz’s camera gets in close to his characters, letting us get to know them intimately, while President Tong’s voiceover introduces us to the internal conflicts he faces as a citizen and leader of Kiribati. The film is meant to galvanize action on climate change, but there’s nothing preachy about it. It hits you right in the heart.
After the film’s Canadian premiere at HotDocs, I sat down with Rytz to discuss how he got involved with making the film and how he approached embedding himself, and us, into the story of life in Kiribati. The film will air in the fall on CBC Docs in Canada, has secured European distribution, and is currently fielding offers from American distributors.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you decide to make this film?
Matthieu Rytz (MR): I’ve been working as a photographer for most of my life, but this is my first feature. I was covering the global issue of the rising sea. I started with Panama, the Kuna Yala. It’s 350 islands spread out between Canada and Colombia. After doing that for two years on assignment for The New York Times, I decided to dig more into the story to see where else on the planet are people who are in danger of losing their entire country. We speak a lot of climate change, but the specific situation with Kiribati is they’re going to lose their entire country. They are going to be stateless. It’s the ultimate threat to the country.
Most of the coastal area in the world is going to be damaged by the rising sea, but they can still move inland. There will be huge economic consequences, but they won’t lose the land totally. I started to be fascinated by the story. I opened the map of the Pacific, and I realized that there are all those countries there. I’ve been traveling most of my life. When I realized there was a country as wide, in terms of border, as the United States, in the Pacific, I decided I had to go there.
I went there as a photographer covering the story. The day before I left, I met President Tong. And I discovered such an incredible man and such an incredible journey he had in front of him as the head of state knowing that, within this century, he won’t have a country. So I started making this feature.