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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019
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Losing Alaska: Irish documentary visits Alaskan town that's about to fall into the sea

The director of the film, Tom Burke, talks to us about making it.

CLIMATE CHANGE IS real, and it’s here. We know that. But sometimes, it can feel just a little removed from our everyday lives here in Ireland.

Yes, we nod when another extreme weather event occurs, this is probably due to global warming. And yes, we say, isn’t it terrible that the sea levels are rising? But we look at the Irish sea and don’t really see how it affects what’s happening there.

For the residents of the small town of Newtok in Alaska, climate change isn’t an abstract concept. It’s right there in front of them, eating at the edges of their land. What was a gentle nibble is now a full-on chomp. What was a town covered in permafrost now sees melting snow and ice in the summer, heavy storms that batter their coastline, and a desperate need to move from this location. 

Losing Alaska

Plans for them to move were hatched as far back as the 1990s, and yet the people of Newtok still haven’t fully been able to leave. Now a new documentary, Losing Alaska, sees director Tom Burke travel to the town to get the multi-layered story behind it all. It turns out that it’s not just about the environmental issues – this is complicated by layers of colonialism and racism, tribal in-fighting, and the difficulties of transitioning from remote life to a city. 

Burke took seven trips in all to Newtok, talking to people on both sides of the divide. He first read the story of Newtok in a series run by the Guardian in 2013. “The articles were great but it made me think that it would lend itself to a feature documentary, because the place looked so spectacular,” Burke tells TheJournal.ie.

Source: BREAK OUT PICTURES/YouTube

He says that there are three layers to the story. “The first is the environmental aspect where you can see the land falling into the sea. That’s not up for discussion – is it happening or not happening, it is definitely happening. The second element was that from the late 1990s the village had decided they were going to relocate the village. I always think this is a very American concept, that right we will just move the town it’s something we don’t do here.”

“The third element is that in a village of 350 people they had split into two factions along ideological lines but also along family lines as well,” says Burke. He applied to the Irish Film Board (now Screen Ireland), for development funding for a feature documentary

He went on his first trip in March 2015, when the average temperature was -35 degrees. “But it made a huge impression on me – I had never seen landscape like that, had never been in a village that sounded and smelled like that. It was a real sensory experience,” recalls Burke. The village is so isolated – there are no cars, no traffic, no streetlights. 

He filmed “all the time” on that first trip, and came up and cut the material. He “left absolutely convinced that there was a story there”. He went on another trip there in the summer with the development money, as the Newtok locals told him that there is a huge difference between the town in the depths of winter and in the summer. 

“They were right – when the snow is gone and it becomes this marshy grassland tundra, it is totally different than it is in winter. It was like shooting in a totally different space,” says Burke.

“Sound travels in a really interesting way – you can hear a snow machine coming from two to three miles away, and a small plane from 10 miles away,” says Burke. People travel by snow machine in winter, or on outboard engines (boats) in the summer. In the background you can always hear the bark of a dog or the noise created by a child playing. 

Burke felt it important to cover the tribal dispute in the film. He got a firsthand taste of it himself when on his first day there he was met at the airport by the leader of the new tribal administration, only to be told the next day by the leader of the old tribal administration that he would not talk to him. “The divide became less important because over time the new council became officially recognised and the old council faded,” adds Burke.

The documentary also touches in the impact of the State’s actions on indigenous people.

“It is a reminder if you’ve got certain commentators who are looking at a small village like that and think why do they not help themselves, well they wouldn’t be there in the first place were it not for State control,” says Burke. “So the state bears a huge amount of responsibility for that situation.”

The indigenous people in the area were naturally migratory, but were effectively forced by the State to settle in where the town is now located.

“So had they been allowed to continue with the traditional patterns they wouldn’t be in this situation,” points out Burke.

For those living in Newtok, although where they live is becoming less attractive, the alternative options aren’t always great either. “It is this attraction and repulsion with modernity,” says Burke. “So you can live in a village and have tremendous amount of freedom if you live the subsistence lifestyle. If you move to the city, you get running water, sanitation, food you can purchase in supermarkets but you lose all those other freedoms.”

When people move from the village, they also move from being surrounded by family. “You immediately become a second class citizen,” says Burke. “Then you are a native in a North America. That’s one of the central struggles.”

In the film is a clip of a speech made by Barack Obama when he visited Alaska in 2015. He said then that what was happening there was a ‘wake-up call’. But has anyone been woken up?

“He is there to tee the whole thing up but then of course we know he is no longer President [of the United States] and we know who is President and things have rolled back quickly since then,” says Burke. “In a way Obama is there now as a foil to what we know is the present reality.”

“When Obama comes on and starts to talk, often at film festivals I’ve seen ppl sigh regretfully – it’s a sign he is now a symbol of how far things have regressed,” adds Burke. 

A cautionary tale

The locals still aren’t moved from Newtok. “That moment will finally be coming,” says Burke. He calls the film ”a cautionary tale for situations that are going to affect lots of other towns and villages in the world in this century”.

“So you’ve got a situation: a defined group of people unambiguously under threat from climate change, and yet it has been so hard for that village to make progress. So if they have been unable to get to there, what is it going to be like when it’s a much bigger place like Miami or other coastal communities who will all have their on internal divisions bureaucratic problems?

“So I’m hoping that the film can be read as a little microcosm for problems that other populations might face. The people of Newtok would make you hopeful I think, as they are resilient.”

But Burke cautions: “I do feel like they are so in touch with their own environment that no matter what happens I feel those people will be fine they know how to live in that space and they are determinedly moving forward all this time. They’ve never lost hope they are always pushing forward and moving forward so that’s a cause for optimism.”

Burke also notes that in the four years since he first started visiting Newtok, “it does feel like the conversation, the underlying assumptions are now changing” when it comes to climate change. In particular, he sees the youth of today as playing a big role in keeping that conversation going. And with films like Losing Alaska being made and seen, there’s no way for viewers to avoid the very obvious effects of climate change on the world around us.

Losing Alaska will be shown on 1 October in Omniplex Rathmines, 3 October at the Irish Film Institute, 6 October at the Light House Cinema in Dublin and 9 October at the Gate cinema in Cork. For more details see here.

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