Challenges emerge for a filmmaker representing Kiribati, a ‘drowning island’ in the global climate change narrative. Instantly embroiled in the same narratives under critique, how can these tensions be navigated, creatively?
I first met Claire Anterea from Kiribati in a UN Climate Change Conference, in Cancun 2010. I was working as a freelance media producer, motivated as an environmental activist. I saw Claire first through the lens of my camera, and heard her voice through my headphones. She was a person that I framed and represented before we ever spoke directly.
Claire was also ‘framed’ by the questions that she answered, and she was performing as a representative of her own country and advocacy networks. To an interviewer affiliated with the Climate Development and Knowledge Network, she described the challenge of finding freshwater and growing healthy crops in her homeland, which was increasingly vulnerable to rising seas. I edited Claire’s responses into a short online video, uploaded the same day, overlaid with footage of Kiribati that Claire passed on to me from another television company. I was adding another representational layer to Kiribati- a country I’d never visited.
As Claire talked about the future disappearance that she anticipated for ‘my people’, she started crying. From behind the camera, I was profoundly moved by her response and what I perceived as Claire’s integrity and humility. I was thinking with several different ‘hats’ on:
I would do better justice to this interviewer and her community if I could portray this story in the right location: Kiribati.
Claire is such a sympathetic person, and her story so powerful- she could influence people in the richer nations to cut carbon emissions.
I was also noticeably more upset than my colleagues by Claire’s words. It might be easy to dismiss such emotional responses as the antithesis of critical thinking. Yet what might be called a gut response is one of the most important ‘voices’ that merits attention in a creative research process. If something affects you, and stays with you, in ways that you can hardly explain, so that you feel compelled to keep exploring a person, place or subject, then you should pursue that, and untangle your feelings and motivations at a stage of the process that feels right to you. This may not necessarily happen at the beginning, or always in words. In fact, it seems to me that to over-analyse overtly or forcibly may even take the powerful charge out of a necessarily creative exploration and expression of ideas.
It is only now, six years later, that I am able to look back and understand more. As a first language Welsh speaker, it is impossible to even speak without making a political statement. There is a permanent sub-text: Language is never neutral, language is part of who you are, and language binds you to your own history and relationship to land. Being part of what is seen as a minority, small or embattled language and culture might make it easier to relate to others who perceive an existential threat. Something that Claire said had touched on some of my own darkest thoughts. One such fear is the idea that others, in a stronger or more privileged position will never understand what you stand to lose, or even expect to lose.
The empathy came partly from affinity. Over years of thinking and undertaking further creative research, I realise now that my own response was also one of remorse.
Single moments do not happen in a vacuum, but are rather complex and intertangled: with other experiences, and within a broader social and political context. Filming dozens of interviews with the people most vulnerable to climate change over the years had left me feeling a sense of shame. Even where accusations are not levelled directly directly (and sometimes they are), there is much to read in the body language of others, or in the silent implications of their words. For the Kenyan Pastoralist, Indian farmer or Environment Minister of Bangladesh, no one from the UK is historically on the side of angels when it comes to climate change, however well-intentioned they are. There are a range of ways to consider different countries’ contributions to global emissions, but if we acknowledge historical responsibility as part of the equation, then the UK is culpable for climate change to an astonishing degree. I had stood, silently, filming responses to questions like: ‘Is there a positive side to climate change for your country…any silver linings?’. I’d suppressed uncomfortable feelings which had deeper implications, far beyond any individual, mortifying moment. If producing ‘on message’ videos on climate mitigation and adaptation was leaving me feeling voiceless, then this was also frustration with the limitations of a range of media forms, and the ‘language’ available in a particular setting and postcolonial moment.
What I knew then was that I wanted to film Claire in Kiribati, and find a language to express what she was feeling in a way that would move others. As personal or even small as this ambition seemed, it seemed key to something bigger that I hadn’t fully grasped myself yet. There is a broader implication beyond this anecdote; I would personally advocate for ‘research questions’ to be framed as an intense, driving curiosity, discovered and articulated through the creative work.
There is another story to tell about how this became a larger interdisciplinary and international research project. This film was produced as a result in 2015
It would be very interesting for if others could analyse the benefits of working on a project like this. Within, and beyond the project.
How does this relatively unadventurous (creatively) film compare with this:
Can films like these speak for themselves?