News & Reviews
June 3, 2011
The Hungry Tide focuses on those islanders suffering on the front line of climate change, writes Tim Elliott.
High tide is a bad tide in the village of Tebekenikoora, in the low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati. As the water rises, the waves slosh over the makeshift seawall, seeping through the village, up the crushed-coral streets and into the houses, taking anything that isn’t battened down. ”It’s a wasteland,” says the local school teacher, Aberi Iota Tabaka, who has moved his house to avoid the water. Every high tide, Tabaka’s school room gets flooded.
Tebekenikoora isn’t so much the frontline in the war on climate change as a seemingly doomed outpost. It also provides some of the most affecting footage in Tom Zubrycki’s new film, The Hungry Tide, an important documentary that explores the plight of Kiribati and one woman’s battle to save it.
”I wanted to put a human face to climate change,” Zubrycki says.
”And I wanted people to see a representation of the issues confronting a place that most seem to have forgotten about.”
Straddling the equator in the central Pacific, Kiribati (pronounced ”Kiribas”) is home to 110,000 people across 33 atolls. Most live just two metres above sea level, making them particularly vulnerable to the climate change-induced rise of the sea level. As Zubrycki’s film demonstrates, moderate rises have devastated the islands, chewing up coastal roads, contaminating wells and sweeping away crop lands. ”Kiribati is really the canary in the coalmine,” he says. ”It will disappear if change doesn’t come.”
Zubrycki’s protagonist is Maria Tiimon, a shy Kiribati woman who now lives in Sydney. As the Pacific outreach officer for a Catholic advocacy group called the Edmund Rice Centre, it’s Tiimon’s job to alert the world to the plight of her homeland. The film follows Tiimon as she holds workshops with schools and community groups, catering both to her work and the needs of her extended family – or ”Noah’s Ark”, as she calls them – who still live back in Kiribati.
”You have to understand how tiny Kiribati is,” she says. ”Most of the islands, when you stand in the middle, you can see both sides: you can hear the waves breaking on both sides at once. With the erosion, many of the people are moving inland from the coastal areas but there’s nowhere to go to.”
Tiimon’s family and work make up the twin strands of Zubrycki’s film, providing alternate perspectives on climate change’s grim reality. Travelling home to visit the family following the death of her mother, for instance, Tiimon consults her ailing father. ”It causes us great sadness when we notice the tides encroaching on our land more and more each year,” he says. ”It’s our belief that it’s all due to the white man’s advanced knowledge. Us brown people, our knowledge has also increased but our knowledge has not destroyed anything.”
For Maria, then, climate change becomes less an environmental issue than a human-rights issue – a problem of justice.
”Industrial countries are causing change in the climate,” she says, ”and we are the first to feel the consequences.”
This is the message she takes to the climate-change conference in Copenhagen, where the Kiribati delegation battles to be heard among the gabfest. Tiimon and her team give their talks and perform their dances; they show a short film and brief the journalists but it quickly becomes apparent her people are drowning not only in seawater but in global indifference.
Indeed, watching Tiimon and the delegation being ground to dust by the wheels of international diplomacy is one of the more moving parts of the film; at one stage the teary, shocked-looking Kiribatis watch on as a group of young protesters are bundled on to a bus by security forces, each group no doubt empathising with the powerlessness of the other.
After failing to agree to stabilise emissions – thanks in part to Australia, which pressured neighbouring island Tuvalu to withdraw its bid – the conference offered low-lying nations a $30 billion ”adaptation fund”. (Two years later, that sum has risen to $100 billion, most of which has yet to materialise.) And while Zubrycki then follows Tiimon to a subsequent climate-change conference in Cancun, the film assumes an air of inevitability.
Even Kiribati’s President, Anote Tong, concedes that relocation is unavoidable and that all efforts must be made to ensure his people can ”move with dignity”.
THE SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL
June 8-19, various city venues, sff.org.au, $15-$17. The Hungry Tide screens on June 12, 6pm, Event Cinema 9, George Street.