"Kiribati seems at the very edge of the earth for most Australians, yet it is only just east of Bougainville," comments Zubrycki, a veteran documentary director with 15 films under his belt. "I’ve been following the climate debate for a number of years, and became very interested in the countries on the front line. Kiribati and its neighbor Tuvalu are expected to be the first nations in the world to disappear as a result of climate change, so this was the trigger and motivation to make the film."
Kiribati (pronounced Kirr-i-bas) is dangerously vulnerable to rising tides because its 33 atolls are an average of just two metres above sea level. The 2007 assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted sea level rises of 18 to 59 centimetres by the end of this century. Subsequent studies have projected possible rises of up to two metres. Even a modest rise would be catastrophic for Kiribati. As The Hungry Tide shows, the country is already experiencing serious destruction of coastal infrastructure, regular flooding of coastal villages, and salinisation of arable land. ABC correspondent Sean Dorney described similar problems in a report last month for Radio National.
Kiribati’s plight is personalised in The Hungry Tide through the story of Maria Tiimon, an advocate with the Pacific Calling Partnership NGO based at the Edmund Rice Centre in Sydney. The stark global inequalities driving the climate change phenomenon are all too apparent in the film, as we follow Tiimon back to her home village. From the luxury of life in Australia we are plunged into the basic existence of the Kiribati people, where the arrival of a television set in Maria’s brother’s home is a major event.
"It was only when I got to know Maria better that I became aware of the pressures from her family back on the islands," says Zubrycki. "She was supporting two families in fact — her extended clan on her home island of Beru, and her brother and his eight kids in the impoverished, overcrowded Kiribati capital Tarawa. She was living two lives and trying to find a balance between them."
The impression of a global pecking order is only reinforced by the film’s scenes at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The Kiribati delegation are forced by budgetary restraints to stay two hours out of the city, and Tiimon has to double as a dancer at the nation’s press conference because they can’t afford a professional troupe. Some of the most revealing scenes revolve around the intense pressure applied to the Pacific island nations by Canberra to withdraw their demand for a legally binding treaty — a manoeuvre barely mentioned in the post-conference rush to blame the dismal outcome on China.
Despite the fact that Kiribati is one of the nations that has contributed least to global warming, assistance from the developed nations most responsible for carbon emissions has been limited. As Zubrycki points out, "Kiribati is not even on the radar for most Australians". $US30 billion was promised to developing nations at Copenhagen to mitigate the impact of climate change, but none of this money had begun to flow to Kiribati by the time Zubrycki’s film was completed. Phil Glendenning, director of the Edmund Rice Centre, confirms that this situation remains unchanged at the time of writing.
In the worst case scenario, the population of Kiribati will need to be relocated, although no formal strategies are in place to allow this to happen. "The label ‘Climate Change Refugee’ does not officially exist in international law," Zubrycki notes. "In Kiribati I found a wholesale rejection of the refugee label, at both the political and community levels. For the people of this small Pacific nation, the term refugee evokes a sense of helplessness and a lack of dignity that contradicts their very strong sense of pride."
It’s this sense of pride mixed with growing fear over their country’s impending fate that Zubrycki captures in the easygoing intimacy he builds with Tiimon and other members of the Kiribati community. The director’s skill at framing the political through the personal has served him well throughout his career, and provided the basis of many of his earlier acclaimed documentaries like Billal (1996), The Diplomat (2000) and Molly and Mobarak (2003). "For me, an idea has to lead to character and story for the film to work," Zubrycki says of his approach.
The Hungry Tide echoes The Diplomat, Zubrycki’s classic portrait of East Timorese leader Ramos Horta, in its focus on an individual hoisted into a political role outside her country’s borders. But unlike the earlier film, which concluded with Horta’s triumphant return to an independent East Timor, The Hungry Tide has no happy ending. Instead, we are left with an ongoing struggle to tackle one of the most potentially devastating environmental crises of our time — and a nation slowly, inexorably slipping under the sea.
A 52-minute version of The Hungry Tide will screen on SBS at 9.30pm on Sunday, 9 October. The feature-length cut will screen in cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne in late November.
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