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Review in “Climate Spectator”

Is climate change slipping out of the frame?

Published 7:54 AM, 12 Aug 2011

Andrew Herrington

In recent years at the Melbourne International Film Festival there has been no shortage of films using climate change and environmental calamity as a theme, or making reference to it in some way. Yet this year, climate change has largely disappeared from the screen. What is going on?

Is it that film makers (and/or Festival programmers) have grown tired of the subject? Is there a concern that new climate change films couldn’t match the novelty and imminent danger portrayed in An Inconvenient Truth? Or has the public debate become so complex and divisive that audiences have lost interest? It’s hard to tell – but the decline is real and man made.

The trend seems to be towards films on urban planning and poverty – most of which head in a pretty pessimistic direction. Drama’s such as Jean Gentil from the Dominican Republic show the crushing social impact of increasing competition for diminishing resources in the third world whilst documentaries like Detroit Wild City take an equally bleak view of decaying cities in the west.

The standout exception was the Australian doco The Hungry Tide – produced and directed by veteran filmmaker, Tom Zubrycki. It provides a detailed look at the problems besetting the low lying pacific atolls that make up the nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bass)and neighbouring Tuvalu.

Climate sceptics are driven to distraction by the media constantly reporting that climate change is already drowning these pacific atolls. They point out sea level rises over recent decades are quite modest (around 3 millimetres a year) and that the current problems of the Kiribati atolls are a combination of over-population, erosion due to cyclones, storm surges and salt infiltration of water supplies.

The film quickly puts those arguments to rest. The threat is long term but the environmental damage is real and happening right now. Graphic pictures show the ease with which spring tides are already breaking through the primitive sea walls, flooding homes and killing off coconut trees and kumara plantations through salination.

In the short term, Kiribati could protect itself with better sea walls but the resources are not there at the scale required to prevent disaster. The recent spring tides, driven by ENSO are a bitter taste of things to come.

The film focuses on the efforts of a young Kiribati woman living in Sydney to spread awareness of the problem and follows her to Copenhagen and Cancun as a spokesperson for her nation. On paper the results are good – a $30 billion adaptation fund was committed at Copenhagen to help countries like Kiribati take protective action.

However none of this money has yet been delivered on the ground and the film shows one village desperately trying to keep the “hungry tide” from their homes and fields as gaping holes appear in the piles of cement bags used to hold back the sea.

The current problem is actually fixable if the west provided the aid needed to improve the sea defences – putting extra layers on a sea wall to protect a village is said to cost as little as $50,000. However the long term prospects are grim as most predictions suggest a long term sea level rise of a metre. If this occurs the atolls will become uninhabitable.

The impressive President of Kiribati, Anote Tong puts the case very effectively in the film. The future of the islands will not be determined for a few decades – but the immediate problems are real. Action is needed now to both protect the islands and also preparing for a future partial or complete evacuation.

An eminently sensible strategy is being built around training islanders in skills in short supply elsewhere so they will be welcome immigrants and not climate refugees. Through a special program with Australia nurses and seasonal fruit-pickers are coming to Australia and establishing a Kiribati community – as well as providing much needed cash to support their families at home.

Elsewhere at the Festival, for a totally different take on global disaster – you can’t go past the infamous Lars Van Trier’s latest film Melancholia. It revolves around the appearance of a new planet, named Melancholia which threatens to collide with the earth. To put you in the mood, Van Trier graphically depicts the outcome in the un-missable opening scenes of the film (and don’t miss the last shot either!).

In between, the story is about how humans respond to this crisis – showing the emotional impact on a particular group of Americans going through a rather disturbed wedding. Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her lead role. It is hard to tell whether this elliptical film is an allegory about the destruction of a family or the family is an allegory for the destruction of the planet.

There is an amusing inverted parallel to the climate change debate in the running conflict between those who believe the scientists (who say Melancholia will miss) and those who believe the scare campaign predicting the imminent demise of our planet.

Staggering out of the darkened cinema – you could see the relief on the faces of the audience – Melbourne might be cold and wet but at least it is still in one piece and liveable – at least for now.

Andrew Herington is a freelance writer who escaped the winter cold by seeing 40 films at the recently completed Melbourne international Film Festival

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