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Five Takes on Climate and Cultural Change in Tuvalu

From: The Contemporary Pacific
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2007
pp. 294-306 | 10.1353/cp.2007.0004

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Tuvalu has come to epitomize the approaching environmental catastrophe of worldwide climate change andsea-level rise. This is a somewhat ironic fact, since its population of under twelve thousand is dwarfed by the millions of other people who also stand to be displaced from their home­lands in the next century. None­theless, Tuvalu's iconic role as "poster child" for encroaching global disaster is well established by the five films reviewed here, all of which have been produced in the last five years. A steady stream of newspaper stories and magazine articles has also depicted the "sinking," "drowning," or "disappearing" of Tuvalu under "rising waters." (A slightly earlier film, Rising Waters: Global Warming and the Fate of the Pacific Islands [2000], focused particularly on Sämoa, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands, and was reviewed by John Hay in The Contemporary Pacific 14:291–293.)

Media attraction to Tuvalu as an appealing victim of global warming is understandable. Composed of nine atolls and reef islands, Tuvalu has a land area of just twenty-six square kilometers (the fourth smallest country in the world, about half the size ofManhattan Island) and a resident population of some 11,600 people. It is isolated, photogenic, culturally distinct, an independent nation since 1978, and a member of the United Nations since 2000. Tuvalu has also taken a leadership role in discussions of global climate change, seeking to raise public awareness through speeches in the United Nations, leadership in regional organizations, and high-profile participation in global policy conferences. Tuvaluan leaders are demanding that the wider world acknowledge the fact of global ­climate change, accept responsibility forthe rising sea levels and altered weather patterns that Tuvalu is experiencing, and do something about them.

If climate change trends continue, Tuvalu could become uninhabitable within the next half century, perhaps the first nation of environmental refugees. These five films all document that grim reality, providing compell­ing images of the local lifestyle, environmental changes, and individuals' responses, while raising important ethical and practical questions for viewers. They also all focus on urban Funafuti, Tuvalu's capital, where half the population now lives. This choice inevitably simplifies and masks some aspects of Tuvalu life because outer island communities still remain the real homeland for most Tuvaluans, and the essence of what will be lost should Tuvalu succumb to "rising waters." Each film uses a distinctive mix of techniques, sound, story line, and content to represent Tuvalu's ­situation. They share significant ­commonalities, yet ultimately tell very different stories.

The Disappearing of Tuvalu: Trouble in Paradise

This French-American coproduction isthe longest and most detailed of the films. Its opening scenes of rush-hour freeway traffic and suburban sprawl in Southern California effectively link Tuvalu's "trouble," and its possible future disappearance, with lifestyles in larger industrialized countries. These connections are deepened when the British-accented narrator expresses feelings that many viewers can easily share: modern life involves a furious pace and an insatiable desire for more, as well as a disquieting sense that our consumption habits are unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Accompanied by a montage of urban scenes, the narrator reveals that having just learned that Tuvalu obtains revenue from selling rights to its Internet domain, dot.tv, he now realizes that this place he had never heard of before "is about to be wiped off themap."

With this lead-in, the viewer is transported to Funafuti and given a brisk introduction to local life. Enele Sopoaga, ambassador to the United Nations, provides a fact-filled over­view. Engaging scenes document the "coexistence of modernity and tradition" and the distinctive atoll environment: narrow ribbon of land, lagoon versus ocean sides, elevation of only a meter or two. We see the new paved road that has "changed the feel of the capital" (and, the filmmakers note, brought more vehicles and emissions). The scenes selected are ethnographically coherent and illustrate core features of local life. For example, the airfield's open space is accurately described as "the community's living room," and is shown thronged with people in the late afternoon.

The filmmakers lay a foundation that easily engages...

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