In Thule, a small village perched on the edge of the Greenland ice shelf, indigenous hunters watch the sea ice – and the way of life it represents – recede year after year. In Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, rising sea levels erode the shoreline, endangering a very different traditional culture.
Snow and sand, ice and sea. In Matthias von Gunten’s film Thule Tuvalu, screening at the Environmental Film Festival in Melbourne on Monday 7 September, these seemingly disparate places – some 20,000 kilometres apart – are closely connected. Melting ice at the poles raises global sea levels, so if Thule thaws, Tuvalu drowns.
It’s a loaded premise, and could easily have turned into a cinematic sermon on climate change. Thankfully, von Gunten has a storyteller’s respect for subtly, and he avoids the temptation to moralise or lecture. Rather than barraging the viewer with charts of rising temperatures and overly explicit narration, Thule Tuvalu conveys its message through sweeping shots of landscapes and the quiet, humble lives of its characters. Given the subject matter, Hemingway’s theory that a story should be like an iceberg – with the deeper message hidden below the surface – has never been more apt.
Climate change isn’t even mentioned until the eighteen minute mark. Kaipati, a resident of Nanumea atoll in Tuvalu, explains how he first heard the term. He was working on a ship that stopped in Stockholm, Sweden. Someone there told him that scientists were talking about sea level rise, and then said, “The most affected country is yours: Tuvalu.”
Kaipati didn’t believe it at first, but now he’s seen the signs, and as the film progresses so do we. Palm trees, their roots exposed by the lapping sea water, have toppled onto the beach. Salty water has contaminated the underground wells and the inland areas where islanders used to be able to grow vegetables. The rains no longer come regularly; in a moment of desperation, the government gives the islanders water tanks to help them through the drought.
Meanwhile, in frozen-over Thule, hunters Lars and Rasmus have also noticed changes. The sea ice is coming two months later, and it’s much thinner, making trips to neighbouring regions riskier. “I can’t imagine how it might be in ten years,” confides Rasmus to camera. “It’s not easy to think about that.”
There’s only one scene with global politics. It’s footage from the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen after the target to keep warming under two degrees was proposed. Tuvalu dissented, arguing two degrees would spell its certain demise. Tuvalu Prime Minister Apisai lelemia told the assembled media: “We don’t want to disappear from this Earth.” Six years later, with another global climate summit scheduled for Paris this November and December, the task of rapidly reducing emissions is even more urgent, and the fate of places like Thule and Tuvalu all the more precarious.
Poignant and understated, Thule Tuvalu peers beneath the technocratic language of climate change to reveal the human story of what’s at stake. As the credits rolled, I felt the sort of sadness that comes from thinking of a long-lost friend or a place I’ll never see again. That the film could make an Australian feel nostalgic for the loss of a culture so different from his own is a remarkable achievement indeed.