- Thank You for the Rain dir. by Julia Dahr
In his influential study of writer-activism in the global South, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon discusses the problem of representation posed by environmental destruction that occurs on a different temporality from that which is most commonly associated with “violence.” He asks how we might “bring home—and emotionally bring to life—threats that take time to wreak their havoc, threats that never materialize in one spectacular, explosive, cinematic scene?” (Harvard University Press, 2011:14). For Nixon, the writings of activists hold a particular privilege in so far as they “can help make the unapparent appear, making it accessible and tangible by humanizing drawn-out threats inaccessible to the immediate senses” (15). But this also raises questions surrounding the relative visibility and representational power of other, non-literary forms of activism in the global South and their relations with “mainstream” debates around climate change in the global North. Thank You for the Rain, directed by Julia Dahr, is a documentary portrait of Kisulu Musya, a Kenyan farmer and environmentalist. The film documents an important instance of local climate activism and explores the apparent disconnect between such grassroots projects and global environmental discourse.
Kisulu’s agricultural livelihood has been dramatically affected by a lack of seasonal rainfall that he attributes to climate change. Early in the film, Dahr’s voiceover tells the viewer that upon seeing Kisulu speak to a group of locals about the dangers of climate change and the need to plant trees, she asked if she could film him. Kisulu agreed, on the condition that she give him a camera to record his own footage, the result being that he and his wife Christina are listed as “video diarists” in the film’s credits. The documentary can be roughly divided into three acts. The first sees Kisulu and his family anxiously awaiting the delayed rainfall that they need to water their parched crops. Their initial joy at the arrival of the rains is short-lived, as a violent storm soon blows the roof off of their house. Kisulu’s response, from which the film takes its name, demonstrates his considerable pragmatism: “This is very much terrifying. Thank you for the rain, but then to me [End Page 252] it means migrating from the rain problem to the house problem. Now I’m left with no house.”
In the second act, Kisulu visits Norway on Dahr’s invitation to address activists there and, on his return, begins pursuing his activism more intensely in his rural community. Although he successfully organizes a network of “farmer’s field schools” to teach ways of reversing and limiting the impact of climate change, the time spent away from his family and farm begin to take a heavy personal and financial toll. In the final third of the film, Kisulu travels to France for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP21), where the Paris climate accord was negotiated. While Kisulu’s presentation about the effects of climate change upon his community appears to be very well received, the viewer soon sees him and Dahr becoming frustrated with the slowness of the negotiations and with the apparent disregard shown by governments for those most affected by the outcome of the talks.
The decision to include a large amount of Kisulu’s handheld footage means that he is allowed an interiority that he might not otherwise be granted as a documentary subject. The viewer gets a real sense of what motivates his activism and of the heavy burden that his activities place upon his family life. The kind of activism in which Kisulu is engaged is therefore shown to be not merely a question of commitment, but indeed a major personal sacrifice. The interviews with his wife, Christina, raise important issues of gender in relation to Kisulu’s voluntary actions, his absence from the farm and lack of financial contribution to the household causing her serious concern. Kisulu’s handheld-footage is—particularly...