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Sun Come Up directed by Jennifer Redfearn (review)

From: The Contemporary Pacific
Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 199-201 | 10.1353/cp.2013.0015

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Sun Come Up tells a story about an attempt by the world's first climate refugees, the Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea. In the absence of state aid, the movie traces their efforts to organize their own resettlement in the context of progressive damage to their ancestral atoll islands by rising sea levels. Sun Come Up offers a compelling case study of the Janus-faced nature of capitalism, which, on the pathological side, has produced the greenhouse gases that are causing the sea levels to rise, thus threatening the cultural autonomy of people like the Carteret Islanders, while it has concurrently produced recursive, critical media, of which Sun Come Up is an unavoidably melo dramatic but nonetheless useful instance.

There is a sequence that is the heart of the movie. Senior leaders send a delegation of young men and women to the mainland, Bougainville in this case, essentially to beg for the goodwill of hereditary landowners there to donate land so that an initial few families may start the relocation process. The film follows the group's movements through several villages, in each of which they appeal for help. They give speeches about climate change, the erosion of their garden land, and their current lack of food resources. They express private anxieties about having to travel through a landscape of drunks and ex-soldiers who fought in the Bougainville war for many years. After a number of failures, a community set deep in the rain forest offers them a small plot of land to settle on. As a landowner says, "Your stories have broken my heart. I heard them and I cried."

The land is cleared and houses are constructed. But what are we given to hear? Talk from a young refugee about being able to see the Carteret Islands from a nearby mountain and an oration by a local leader who encourages him to join the new community and resist homesickness and isolation. The inherent ambivalence of all parties and the many ambiguities of the situation are well in view in the faces and reactions of participants when a church service is staged to celebrate a symbolic marriage between hosts and guests in which a group of island men are seen "paddling" down the aisle.

Obviously, the new site, being landlocked, is entirely inappropriate for the maritime Carteret Islanders. The delegation returns home, where concerns are voiced about their pending loss of cultural identity and about their nostalgia for their island home, the home that they have yet to leave. A senior man declares that he intends to be the very last one to go, if it turns out that everyone does indeed depart.

This dramatic sequence surely illustrates the political and environmental catastrophe that capitalism has and will continue to produce on ever-bigger scales. The image of poor and weak people in the global south having to trudge through a landscape of reticent landowners, drunkenness, and violence in order to devise their own adaptation to a problem they did not create—having to humiliate and debase themselves—could hardly be rendered any more bleakly.

Allegory (and this movie is allegory) suffers from limited character development because its heroes are subordinated to the ideas they represent rather than allowed to emerge dialogically by and with their authors. That is to say, we do not get much information about the Carteret Islanders or their new hosts other than romantic silhouettes of the former against the sea at dusk, or riding across the waves in modest outriggers, and the heroic act of generalized reciprocity by the Bougainvillian landowner, who, one suspects, had more complicated motivations than the mere sentiment he expresses on camera. Nevertheless, Sun Come Up is a pedagogically effective movie. Redfearn and Metzger make the film's shattering point in a visually appealing, understated way that avoids getting too caught up in the byzantine mazes that local-level Melanesian politics are so famous for. It will well serve the high school or college classroom as well as any other context in which climate change and environmental issues are raised.

Copyright © 2013 University of Hawai'i Press
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David Lipset. "Sun...

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