Thursday, November 4, 2010
A documentary film crew flies over the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu in a small plane. As they look down into the variegated blues of the ocean, they see a thin strip of sand, at its most narrow only 65 feet across. It’s one of a group of five small coral atolls and four islands that make up a country one-tenth the size of Washington, D.C.
More than 11,000 people live on these small patches of land in the middle of the sea, but that number is dwindling rapidly. The islands are sinking. Or rather, the ocean is rising. In fact, some predict that within 10 years, Tuvalu will be completely gone, making it the first nation-casualty of global climate change.
Images of people crossing the ocean with water up to their waists – and bags of rice, piles of clothes and fishing poles held over their heads – provide a human face for climate change. These refugees are wading from one atoll to another with an airport, leaving the islands they have lived on for generations.
Climate Refugees, playing on Sunday afternoon, is one of the feature films at the Monterey Bay Chapter of the United Nations Association’s 11th annual film festival. Members sorted through 70 international documentaries in the course of six months to choose the most engaging, thoughtful and dynamic ones to screen.
“The films we have chosen share a story,” says U.N. Monterey Chapter President Larry Levine. “The story is about issues and conditions facing people in countries far across the world, and people right here at home.”
They also share something else. “They offer inspiration,” Levine says. “They show people overcoming challenges and problems, rather than just highlighting how bad the problems are.”
Climate Refugees highlights an issue that is currently forcing over 25 million people to accept life on the run.
“One day,” the filmmakers assert, “these issues will reach the doorstep of every person living on this Earth.”
By the year 2011, there will be an estimated 50 million climate refugees, many of them immigrating from south to north. They will need to find a haven, but unlike political refugees, they are not protected under international law.
“Whether or not people are causing it or it’s just a natural change of climatic state, it’s still in our faces and it’s still affecting an awful lot of people right now,” says Professor David Atkinson of the University of Alaska.
With its 13 films, this festival hits on a multitude of subjects that go well beyond environmental events and into women’s issues, human rights, and war and peace.
Africa Rising, playing on Saturday night, is a film about a grassroots effort by women in several African nations to end the practice of female genital mutilation, and portrays change that is occurring today. FGM is a cultural rite of passage based in religious tradition for young women in many African nations. According to the film, it is also a human rights violation.
The film introduces us to a group of people who have direct knowledge of FGM’s deep roots and cultural complexities, and can therefore use those nuances to build a solid case against it. Fatma Toufich (of Women Wake Up in Tanzania) is shown in the film asking her community about their fears of having their culture taken away. She asks, “Is it true that if we stop mutilating women, all our customs will be dead?”
The group surrounding her thinks about the question and then their heads shake. “No,” they say, “it won’t.”
The film’s breathtaking cinematography includes scenes of women on their land, herds of wild animals running behind them. Joyful and defiant music brings a rhythmic heartbeat to the film. This imagery and sound makes the vivid descriptions of “the cutting” bearable.
One Small Act, a Friday night feature, traces the small monthly donations made by one Swedish woman, Hilda Back, to a young boy, Chris Mburu, living in rural Kenya. Because of the advantages those donations give him, he is able to go to Harvard, work with political refugees and become a U.N. human rights lawyer.
This may sound like cliché – the white angel story is played out in films like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers – but the message is more complicated. Hilda Back is precisely the kind of political refugee Mburu advocates for in his work: She escaped the Holocaust in Germany and took refuge in Sweden, while her parents died in Auschwitz. Her benefactors made her own survival possible, and she chose to continue that life-saving cycle.
The film follows the succession of benevolent events further as Mburu goes back to his hometown to start his own foundation to help kids like him. The nonprofit’s governing body is made up of social workers, educators, and counselors, all from Kenya – which, given the proliferation of international NGOs there, represents a powerful and inspiring accomplishment in itself.
The group raises money to help children from poor families complete primary and secondary school by applying strategies as unique as their leadership, basing their decision on Kenya Certificate of Primary Education test scores, gender equality, and student willingness to ultimately give back to their villages themselves, building community self-reliance.
Across these lives, One Small Act offers a reminder of the effect a few people’s actions can have on the world. Levine hopes that a small and simple act – attending the 11th Annual International Film Festival – can have its own potent effect on locals.
“People need to learn about global issues beyond brief sound bites on the news,” he says. “These films wake people up to the world.”