Making There Once Was An Island

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Director Briar March and producer Lyn Collie describe the challenges behind the filming of their powerful climate change documentary.

One of the talking points of the New Zealand International Film Festival thus far has been Briar March’s There Once Was An Island: Te Henua e Noho, a documentary examining the impact of climate change on Takuu. A tiny island two hundred and fifty kilometres northeast of Bougainville, Takuu is one of the western outliers of the Polynesian Triangle. The island’s low-lying nature—it resides only one metre above sea level—has seen its population of 400 draw international attention as rising tides put the islanders’ unique way of life under considerable strain.

Richard Moyle, an ethnomusicologist who had visited Takuu nearly 14 times to study its native music, inspired the making of the film. “Given that the community had resisted the missionaries for a really long time,” says March of Takuu’s people, “they were still practising traditional religions and meant that their music was inspired by their own cultural practices, rather than through Christian influences.” Moyle’s description of the effects on the island also interested March, and in observing the island’s response to environmental change, drew parallels to the way we all respond to change in our environment. “Just by looking at the microcosm of the macrocosm, you can speak about all of these issues.”

However, Takuu wasn’t the easiest place to visit. While not physically remote (250km northeast of Bougainville), getting to and from the island was very much a challenge, according to producer Lyn Collie. “Buka in Bougainville is the last post. It’s a one-horse town. The service boat that goes from Buka to the atoll is extremely sporadic. It breaks down often. The crew are on strike often. There’s not a lot of money to fix it or pay wages. It doesn’t keep to schedule. If you’re trying to get there, the biggest problem is knowing when the boat goes.” This uncertainty surrounding the schedule of the four-times-a-year boat was compounded by the crew’s lack of money; arriving at the right time on the island became even harder as a result. “All of the money we had from Screen Innovation was getting to that point.”

With advice from Moyle and careful preparation (such as carrying all essential gear as hand luggage), March and crew managed to make it to Takuu, which is more than can be said for other media crews trying to complete the journey. “So many other film crews, nearly every other one, never listened to the people,” says March. “For example, ABC showed up there, and they didn’t bring their tapes with them on the plane, and that was it. They got there and they couldn’t do anything. Another one said, ‘we’ll just do what we want, we’re powerful, from developed countries.’ They get there and they’re stranded on this island [Bougainville] for two weeks. And they’re absolutely horrified. They don’t even come back with a film. We’re secretly laughing at them. We feel bad, but they have as much money as we have to try and make a beautiful, cinematic, eighty minute film, and they’ve got to make this small slot on a TV show.”

Given Takuu’s fierce protection of its traditions, I ask March if the shoot on the island itself was difficult. Fortunately, she was invited onto the island at the request of the Ariki, which helped the production of the film considerably. “He [the chief] requested that someone comes and documents things. [Their] people wanted the preservation of their culture and do see it as a good thing. Then there are things we weren’t able to film, and there were times when things were difficult.”

Thankfully, the documentary also avoids a “noble savage” kind of stereotype, with the island’s inhabitants well aware of what was at stake. “The island itself has three PhD graduates, and a number of expats living in Port Moresby and Australia, and generally speaking, although not everybody on the island is educated, they all speak English… and if they manage to get off the island to go to high school, they go on from there to do other stuff,” Collie explains. “There’s movement on and off the island, insofar as the boat allows, so it’s not as if these are people wearing grass skirts, they do get technology. It’s not [like] going into the highlands in the ’30s.” Al Pacino VCDs powered by solar panels, for instance, featured regularly in the community’s recreation time.

Despite such observations, logistical differences were still a reality. Difficulties faced by the crew included a lack of privacy from the close living on Takuu, the periods of mourning islanders were expected to uphold if a family member died (which made filming problematic), lack of medical supplies, and narrow timeframes. Another hurdle—shooting underwater—was overcome thanks to the skipper of their charter boat, who with the right scuba gear was able take some indelible images. March still expresses surprise at the outcome. “Was the universe on our side? In a way I cannot believe what we made, and the things we got. When you look at the odds, it’s quite hard to imagine.”

One of the most significant things to happen to the crew during the shoot was capturing the flooding of the island—an event central to film’s impact on audiences. And they certainly didn’t expect it, says Collie. “A flood came. It was in the ’60s, the last one of that magnitude. And we were only there for four weeks. The chances of it happening are thousands to one. Without the flood we wouldn’t have had such a strong film.” March adds, “The flood makes the film what it is. The scientists were there before and after to take the records, and it was ‘fortuitous’ that we could film it so people could see what actually happened.”

Incorporating scientists into the documentary was also a turning point for the filmmakers. “The fact we brought the scientists there changed our views a lot,” March reiterates. “I’m really proud we did that. It gives our film something that a lot of films on this issue don’t have. It’s so much more grounded in research, [whereas] a lot of the things you see in the media are very fatalistic. What happens is that their whole education [becomes[ what they see in the media. Continually what they see is this ‘Atlantis’ view of things. It’s true we need to be concerned, and scientists says we should be panicking about climate change as a country, but the islanders shouldn’t be leaving their islands now. This is something people aren’t talking about. Right now, there are still ways of living there. There isn’t enough money or resources to make the changes that need to be made.”

There Once Was An Island focuses specifically on three people, but the filmmakers are quick to emphasise they met many other fascinating individuals in the process. “I was trying to get a cross-section of the community and represent different elements of the community,” March clarifies. “This was not how it turned out, but I had scripted it so that I wanted a young person, I wanted someone more connected with the traditional culture and more hostile to change, and there’d be a woman. I was open to how the woman would go, but she ended up a Christian, she represented this other element, the way the cultural element of the society is changing.”

Through this, the film highlights the differing perspectives on how the island should deal with climate change. Collie elaborates, “You can’t see the changes, climate change is really insidious. We’re all just a frog in a pot waiting for the water to boil. [But] climate change is so exacerbated by issues of poverty and a lack of infrastructure. It’s not a real axe-grinding film. It’s not ‘climate change is happening, feel guilty’. It’s ‘here’s a group of people [and] this is what’s happening’.”

There Once Was An Island is earmarked for distribution around the world, and March (who is currently studying at Stanford University in the United States) is drawing interest from NGOs and universities. In expanding the focus of New Zealand documentary beyond our shoreline and into the Pacific, March and Collie are to be commended, and yet the pair are quick to highlight the relevance and proximity of their documentary to those in New Zealand, suggesting through their efforts that how a small Polynesian community in the Pacific deals with climate change has links to the rest of us. “I think as New Zealand filmmakers, we have a responsibility to make stories about the Pacific,” says March. “It’s just my view, but we have amazing stories out there, and they’re often just forgotten.”

‘There Once Was An Island’ screened in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2010. For dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.