• A film still from Anote's Ark by Matthieu Rytz, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

    A film still from Anote's Ark by Matthieu Rytz, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Matthieu Rytz, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

For most North Americans, the predicted impacts of climate change, like rising tides and disastrous flooding, are the problems of a distant, unknowable future. For the people of Kiribati, a remote Pacific atoll that sits just two metres above sea level, they're an immediate existential threat. 

“Kiribati [is] on the front line,” says Matthieu Rytz, a Montreal-based filmmaker and photographer whose debut feature-length documentary Anote’s Ark plays the Sundance Film Festival this week. “What happens to them will be the fate [the rest of the world will] follow.”

In the case of Kiribati, the front lines, so to speak, are makeshift walls of sandbags, stacked a dozen or so high for hundreds of metres along an otherwise picturesque tropical coast, an effort that feels futile as a permanent solution. From 2003 to 2016, these blockades were maintained by Anote Tong, Kiribati’s former president, an unassuming man of rare political calm — the kind of leader one would want in the face of catastrophe.

Anote’s Ark follows Tong on a quest to purchase 20 square kilometres of land in Fiji for his people’s food security — and as a contingency refuge in the event of Kiribati’s disappearance, hence the film’s title. Rytz, who spent three years filming Tong in Kiribati, captures two very different yet equally humbling sides of the climate warrior: In one scene, Tong speaks truth to power at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference; in another, he dons casual shorts and goes fishing for a snack in the tranquil blue shallows.

“His charisma and life story blew my mind,” Rytz says of Tong. “I knew he was an incredible character.”

The same could be said of Rytz, who’s had an interesting start to 2018. Although his film is sure to receive a warm reception at Sundance, a festival that has long championed films and filmmakers documenting climate change, Rytz himself was recently arrested and had his gear seized by Kiribati police and immigration officials upon his return to the country. (Rytz is now safely in North America, after escaping Kiribati to the nearby island of Nauru).

“The Kiribati ambassador at the United Nations wrote an official letter to [try and] ban the Sundance premiere,” Rytz explains. “This censorship has one goal: implanting a new vision that denies the need to find another place to live.”

The loudest voice of denial about Kiribati’s plight is Taneti Mamau, the country’s new president, who, according to the film, has reversed many of Tong’s policies and action plans. “The people of the world have been threatened that Kiribati will be sinking, but I am now ready to spread a message to the world that Kiribati will not sink,” Mamau said in a recent radio broadcast — an administrative 180 from Tong’s presidency.

Tong himself is unequivocal: “Climate change should not be a political issue,” he says in the film, “because it’s about the survival of our people.”

Of course, as Anote’s Ark shows via drone videography and on-the-ground footage, climate change is real — and happening now. To explain humanity’s unwillingness to deal with the problem, Rytz invokes the parable of the boiling frog: The idea that a frog thrown into boiling water would immediately jump out, but place a frog in water and raise the temperature slowly, and it won’t perceive the danger to its survival.

This, Rytz argues, is what’s happening to the world at large. Indeed, where Al Gore’s 2017 project An Inconvenient Sequel features Miami residents concerned about their future, Anote’s Ark reveals a populace concerned with their present. The result is alarming.

“What we are witnessing in Kiribati is a new phenomenon that goes way beyond national boundaries and that should be addressed urgently,” Rytz says. “If we don’t deeply change our behaviours, humanity is on the brink of being ripped off the surface of the earth.”