Review: Asote’s Ark

Asote’s Ark is a beautiful and haunting story of the small island of Kiribati. It is a story of change and resistance to change. The island is changing, the weather is changing, and the people sit in the clear presence of their own fragility. The film takes us on a journey that weaves together the lives of islanders with the heads of state whose empty declarations echo in the sound of the waves slowly taking over people’s lives.

This is a film that exposes perhaps more than it intends as it follows the political and economic history of this small island nation, and the quest of its president for justice and relief. Once a colony providing phosphate, they were granted nationhood when the extraction stopped. Before, they were fishers and families, but there is little talk of before. And now, they are the victims of climate injustice. Asote is the president of this small island and the film follows his travels in search of answers, in search of resilience. and in search of financing.

Set at the high water mark of global climate commitments in 2015, the words of former leaders sound ludicrous today. Equally incongruous is the migration of one island family to New Zealand, which holds a lottery in which each year 75 lucky persons are chosen for working visas. The film also follows one women, a winner, who leaves her husband and small children to go work on the larger and fully developed island. Cars fill the parking lot at the airport, paperwork and bureaucracy mark her passage into work as a kiwi picker, and clean new sheets cover her soft bed.

While she labors to make enough money to uproot the rest of her family from their island home, Asote travels the world, searching for solutions. He travels to humanitarian conferences and to UN summits; he does talk shows and interviews; he tries to rally the voices and indignation of his fellow island leaders. He searches for a place where his people can go when the ocean swallows their home. The leaders of other nations are silent. No nation comes forward to say, “do not fear, we will take you in.” Asote is a man in search of a plan, in search of a pathway through which to navigate himself, the island, and the people who used to make their living there.

He achieves very little. A land purchase. He buys land from neighboring Fiji, a place for the people of Karibati to develop now and move to later. Fiji was not happy about this, “what if we want to develop? What if we need to use this land?” It is unclear who really negotiates this land sale, if the Fijian leaders do not want it. Nonetheless, it is a small piece. The land of Kiribati will stop producing well before it becomes officially uninhabitable and Asote is concerned about the loss of agricultural land. Fiji does not solve this problem, but It gives a bit of what Asote asks for in the UN chambers. He wants “some sense of comfort…some sense of security for the people.” He is calling for leadership where there is none, he asks, “who do we turn to for our people’s right to survive.”

He visits with the pope, who agrees to pray.

Pray for the survival of the people. Pray that their lives can continue unchanged. There is no logical or moral reason for the small people of this small island to be facing first the effects of the coming storm. Asote suggests that that moral logic is often lacking in human social systems. People thought enslaving Africans to work on plantations was just fine, they thought that apartheid was morally logical, and although Asote does not mention it, they thought destroying a tropical island to extract phosphate was perfectly acceptable.

The first two have been collectively condemned as immoral, and even though dark-skinned people continue to suffer the humiliation of picking kiwi for the affluent, as the winner of the New Zealand working lottery does, we have abolished those other abominations of human culture. Asote knows that these former atrocities no longer exist in full view, and he understands climate change to be in the same register. “Why”, he asks, “why did we not do anything about it before, when we knew, with all the science coming forward, that it was wrong.”

Climate change is wrong, it is an immoral affront, like slavery or apartheid. Or phosphate extraction? There are still invisible things about climate change. Asote thinks technology and new kinds of infrastructure can ensure the people’s right to survive. He looks to building a new island, under the sea. “Where things are very calm”, claims the designer of the ‘ocean spiral’. “There won’t be disasters like there are on land.” It will cost 50 trillion dollars and house 30-40,000 people. Kiribati’s population is 100,000… “They can build two.” The technocrat was unaware of the changing weather patterns bringing typhoons to the equator, the area best suited for deep ocean development. Just like space development, this is a perfectly normal course of action.

Asote is not calling for change. There is no cry for the radical economic transformations necessary to stem the coming tide, not from Asote, from the climate solution techno-wizards, nor from the climate justice protesters. Everyone just wants things to go on. People want lives for their children. The young mother who migrates to New Zealand adapts to the lifestyle and brings over the rest of her family, her nuclear family. Aunts, grandparents, and other relatives remain on the island while the father and two daughters accept the lottery prize and travel to New Zealand. There they adapt to the new lifestyle and in the final scene, their new baby, “a New Zealander” is happily gurgling, preparing to “have a different life.”

This is a film calling for action against climate change. It is a film showing the effects of a changing planet. And a film showing humans stubbornly unchanging, even when faced directly with it. If you watch it with your eyes open, you might see.


Watch the trailer for Asote’s Ark.

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Review: I See Red People

Maybe learning about the past is like learning to drive. Although the RMV gives you a handbook of applicable laws and procedures, much that you need to know only comes as you absorb tacit rules of the road: in Boston, you’d know turn left just before the light turns green, but elsewhere that might not be a good idea. When one confronts the past, how does one know when to go forward and when to yield? Who gets to set the rules, particularly when new technologies and systems come into play?

In Bojina Panayotova’s I See Red People (Je vois rouge), the film maker, who grew up in France, returns to Bulgaria where she witnesses mass demonstrations against remnants of the previous communist regime. She discovers that she can request to see her family’s secret police dossier. Overtaken by curiosity, Panayotova begins to navigate the transitional justice, seeking out the truth of her parents’ former lives in communist Bulgaria. Her parents, particularly her father, disagree. She discovers, perhaps more than she would wish, about how to discover historical facts. Thirty years after the regime, how can one understand these facts, and who gets to control them: the media, protesters on the street, the state, the persons themselves?

Panayotova skillfully takes viewers toward these questions by employing a split camera, which allows her to show her own face as she observes, listens, and reacts, as well as the faces of her interlocutors or the scenes that her camera views. This experimental device adds to the film’s visual interest and reflexivity, but also serves her well as she documents her many arguments with her parents. Panayotova also brings archival footage from Bulgarian media and her family’s home movies and media appearances into the film, in order to show the changing contexts in which we understand the authoritarian regime. At times, the film becomes almost a detective story, with Panayotova seeking the whereabouts of a former political police officer for whom Panayotova’s mother may have acted as an informant. In a particularly stressful scene, her mother argues with her the entire ride to find the retired officer, but nonetheless feels compelled to confront him. In its allusion to the Hollywood blockbuster The Sixth Sense, I See Red People reveals that those who collaborated with the authoritarian regime might be beside one all the time. However, knowledge of this truth never exorcises the spirits of this regime. Will we ever arrive at a place beyond recrimination?

Throughout the film, a driving instructor guides Panayotova as she learns the rules of the road in today’s Bulgaria and also begins to understand the norms that conditioned her parents’ lives as intellectuals living under the authoritarian regime. In addition to filling the film maker (and the viewers) in on the way things were done before political liberalization, his cynicism and humor make him a perfect foil for the young film maker’s idealism and earnestness. Together, they make a compelling and entertaining cinematic pair as Panayotova tries to piece together her parents’ story. They also offer two takes on transitional justice. If Panayotova must always pursue the clearest facts, her instructor is willing to let the past alone. Of course, he has an understanding that Panayotova’s parents could hardly have avoided compromise with the regime. Each driving lesson unfolds Panayotova’s discoveries as a shared document, facts on the way to becoming matters of public knowledge, mediated by the rules of the road that she learns with her driving instructor as tutor.

Not lost on the film maker is the way that current neo-liberal regimes in Bulgaria and elsewhere create even more knowledge of their citizens through a variety of technological means, including CCTV surveillance, cell phones, and social media. Those of us living in relatively democratic surveillance societies condone these technologies while condemning the means of surveillance—personal and often face to face—practiced under authoritarian regimes. Thus, her film features footage that Panayotova acquired from surveillance cameras in the archival offices she visited to access her parents’ secret police dossiers. At one point in the film, Panayotova also covertly films a former political officer. If we feel discomfort, is it because such scenes point out the danger of our pursuits individually or collectively to create knowledge? Should we remain anxious about how we produce and distribute truth?

Discussions of transitional justice often consider truth as a salve, the first step in healing trauma remaining from an authoritarian regime. In a sense, we think of transitional justice as overturning a large, rotting log in the forest: by turning it over and exposing everything to light, we can stop the corruption and come to terms with a troublesome past. Of course, those of us who seek to come to terms with the authoritarian past have a legitimate desire to see the archives; when, as on Taiwan, these desires have not been met adequately, suspicion results. As a public, we may even have a duty to uncover the truths of the everyday manifestations of authoritarianism, as well as significant instances of White Terror, such as the February 28th Incident. Such a process would reveal the workings of the party-state as both connected to forms of privilege and also intensely personal. In showing the family psycho-drama resulting from the director’s attempt to discover truth, I See Red doesn’t dismiss the idea of transitional justice as much as it complicates what it might mean to know. Approaching these questions of justice, truth, and social control with a measure of self-deprecating humor, Panayotova has created an amusing and provocative film.

Watch the trailer for I See Red People.

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The “American Dream” in Melanesia: Island Soldier

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be an American … soldier”

The absent protagonist of Island Soldier, Sappuro “Sapp” Nena, replied to this question while in uniform, riding an armored personnel carrier in Afghanistan. He died in action before he could return home. Although enlisted in the U.S. Army, he was not an American citizen. Perhaps his answer, “I want to be an American … soldier” was a joke among the tight group of platoon mates filming each other as they traversed dangerous territory. Yet it seems to capture the ambivalence veterans and their families feel in Kosrae, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, former U.S. colony and U.S. military “recruiters’ paradise.” Through a close look at families in Kosrae as they mourn, wait, or send off young men, Island Soldier causes us to ask whether “sovereignty” can account for the complicated reality of Micronesia and other post-colonial nations.

In its attention to everyday practices of getting by in Kosrae, the film shows us a mobile population who are as likely to be packing for deployment in Afghanistan or filing papers at an understaffed Veterans’ Affairs Office as they are gardening, fishing, or processing taro. Repeated scenes of U.S. flags and large marble tombstones in front of houses add to our sense that attachments to the metropole remain. In part, these attachments to the U.S. endure because of outstanding security and economic treaties, such as The Compact of Free Association; however, the film suggests that in a deeper sense, people in Kosrae cling to a set of promises that the U.S. offered but has never delivered. Although the U.S. formally decolonized in 1983, the sense of unfulfilled promises remains, much like the coral encrusted tanks in Kosrae’s lagoon. Showing us these ghosts of colonial history, Island Soldier suggests that pride in one’s national independence does not always mean a complete rejection of the colonizer’s ideals.

Although Island Soldier shows that economic insecurity motivates young Melanesians to sign up in the U.S. military, the film explores what Yarimar Bonilla, writing about the French Caribbean, calls “non-sovereign futures.” If discourses of sovereignty generally depict autonomy as the goal and outcome of decolonization, the vision of sovereignty presented in Island Soldier suggests that the departure of the colonists—partial because of U.S. military control of Melanesia’s vast ocean territory and provision of some necessary government services—does not automatically lead to autonomy. The film shows us how Melanesians express commitments to, and pride in, their nation in discourses of “island culture” and in the islander networks Melanesians have formed in the U.S. military. Shared military service, Veteran’s Day observances, funerals, and fishing all create conditions for an imagined Micronesian nation. These conditions ultimately lack the possibility of resolution into an untroubled national identity, however. While some activists work for sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty, tastes for cheeseburgers and awareness of the looming end of U.S. economic assistance fill the thoughts of those in the film. The men enlist in order to help their families economically, but also to stake a larger claim: Do not abandon us.

From another perspective, the film shows us the human costs of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspective of families in Kosrae. The film follows the Nena family’s attempts to commemorate Sapp, who died in Afghanistan, but also shows their frustrations in securing veterans’ benefits. When the flags are folded after funeral’s end, those in the community can turn to each other and to the land for sustenance. But with most of the island’s young people off island to seek economic opportunity, who will remain to tend taro and banana gardens? And with the cost of gasoline, is it still worth it to fish? These questions touch on how Melanesia’s (non-)sovereign realities are personally felt.

Island Soldier relates these questions through a wide variety of archival and social media footage, as well as sensitively filmed scenes of life in Kosrae and on military bases in the United States and Afghanistan. Contrasts between Kosrae’s lush maritime landscape and the dry expanses of Colorado show the distance between home and the army bases where one of the recruits prepares for deployment. Weaving scenes of family gatherings with informal interviews, often conducted in boats or automobiles, the film presents disparate perspectives on military recruitment and service. Giving further depth to these perspectives, scenes of both public and relatively private commemoration, including local string band and gospel music, highlight the many ways that they are lived and felt in Kosrae. In this sense, the film puts a human face on an otherwise abstract set of questions.

In its depiction of U.S. military recruits in Kosrae, the film might cause us to reflect on colonial nostalgia elsewhere. Micronesia, Pelau, and the Marshall Islands may seem to be the opposite of Taiwan’s condition. These Pacific Island nations have UN recognition, but many key functions of their governments are performed by the United States. Taiwan, of course, has all of the functions of a fully sovereign government but lacks formal recognition. By appealing to shared sacrifice and ambitions, U.S. military veterans in Micronesia express desires for a kind of normal nationality that might only be possible if they were “American.” Yet in their military service these men also stress their commitments to an impossible but deeply felt homeland. Hence the gap in Sapp’s answer, “I want to be an American … soldier.” In its attention to how this gap is experienced in Micronesia today, Island Soldier resonates with post-colonial desires for national identities that can account for the unfinished business of colonial relationships. It is a beautiful and thought provoking film.

Watch the trailer for Island Soldier.

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