Breaking the Waves:
There Once Was An Island

FILM, Film Festivals,
Climate change reaches the shoreline of south-west Pacific atoll Takuu in Briar March’s poignant eco-documentary.

Like fabled Atlantis of old, an isolated Island in the South Pacific is being slowly consumed by the ever-rising tide. There Once Was An Island: Te Henua e Nnoho—the second feature from young New Zealand documentary filmmaker Briar March—gets right amongst the sun-drenched palms and ocean spray of Takuu (aka the Mortlock Islands) to discover what is to become of a land and people in crisis. Inspired in part by the work University of Auckland anthropologist Richard Moyle, the filmmakers document the intimate journey of a people struggling to maintain their place in our world—both culturally and geographically—as their home slowly disappears beneath the breaking waves. This illustrates a broader narrative about the global impacts of accelerated climate change; a story in which, ultimately, we all play a part.

Shooting was accomplished during two trips to the island: first in 2006, then again in 2008. Director March, along with producer Lyn Collie and team, decamped from New Zealand to the balmy if occasionally hazardous climes of Takuu in the South Pacific. 250 kilometres off the coast of Bougainville, Takuu’s tiny population (approx. 400) are of Polynesian rather than Melanesian origin (the latter being the prevailing ethnic group in the region). Indeed, watching the film, I was surprised at how similar the islanders’ language is to Te Reo Maori. Braving challenging filming conditions—as simple as lack of electricity to run equipment if batteries failed, through to encountering a storm which saw waves wash over whole sections of the small island—the filmmakers worked hard to pull together the various threads of the Takuu Islanders’ story.

Beautifully filmed, March frames and constructs her shots with the eye of an artist. The colours, captured in high definition digital, are crisp and alive, creating real immediacy for the viewer and contrasting the aching sense of loss evoked in the unfolding story. In pure aesthetic terms I found the opening and closing shots of the open sea particularly memorable and poetic.

March’s documentary style flits between personal interview and fly-on-the wall. She canvasses the various positions held by different factions in the tribe (as represented by particular interviewees, in community debate and family discussion) but rather than advocating for the relocation of the island’s inhabitants to (a non-coastal area of) Bougainville, it is clear the director favours a solution that would see the Islanders remain where their roots are for as long as they are able. Fair enough. The argument for the latter is certainly compelling, particularly when a couple of Australian scientists (an oceanographer and a geomorphologist!) are shipped in to assess the situation during the filmmakers’ second stay.

An Island’s micro-to-macro structure echoes Marc and Nick Francis’s deconstruction of the global coffee trade through the lens of a specific Ethiopian grower cooperative in their 2006 documentary Black Gold. Likewise, An Island successfully connects the viewer to the plight of Takuu by highlighting our part (insignificant though it may seem) in its slow but steady submersion—reminiscent of the way in which Edward Burtynsky illustrates our indirect complicity in negatively impacting our physical environment as seen in Jennifer Baichwal’s similarly themed Manufactured Landscapes (2006). On occasion the film’s various story elements lose their sense of cohesion, which might, in part, be attributed to the unusual constraints the filmmakers had to contend with. So isolated is Takuu that its primary connection to the outside world is via charter boat from Bougainville which is too expensive to keep to a reliable schedule. Costly and difficult to get in and out of, no additional shooting was possible. Nevertheless, March manages to keep the logical flow of her picture clear and works well with the footage she has available.

An Island derives its significant emotional impact primarily from the vulnerability and artlessness of the Takuu islanders. The director wisely ensures they are kept to the fore. These people are confronted with the kind of tragedy few of us will ever have to face and of a magnitude that is difficult to fathom. To lose your entire land would be to lose your sense of place in the world. One scientist, in a poignant statement to the camera, outlines the cruel irony that these people, who, though paying the highest cost of global climate change, have made the least contribution to its advent. Despite the serious themes, it is to the credit of the filmmakers and the people of Takuu that March’s documentary does not leave you feeling cynical and disillusioned, but rather with a strong sense of hope. Positive outcomes are still possible: both in terms of Takuu’s situation and the broader arena of global climate change. There Once Was An Island lets us know that the ending isn’t written and that we’re holding the pen. A challenge is left at our feet; will we take it up? Will we play our part in making the necessary changes to benefit our neighbours and future generations to come?

Dir. Briar March
New Zealand, 2010; 80 minutes
In English, Takuu and Tok Pisin, with English subtitles
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.