Review: Asote’s Ark

Asote’s Ark is a beautiful and haunting story of the small island of Kiribati. It is a story of change and resistance to change. The island is changing, the weather is changing, and the people sit in the clear presence of their own fragility. The film takes us on a journey that weaves together the lives of islanders with the heads of state whose empty declarations echo in the sound of the waves slowly taking over people’s lives.

This is a film that exposes perhaps more than it intends as it follows the political and economic history of this small island nation, and the quest of its president for justice and relief. Once a colony providing phosphate, they were granted nationhood when the extraction stopped. Before, they were fishers and families, but there is little talk of before. And now, they are the victims of climate injustice. Asote is the president of this small island and the film follows his travels in search of answers, in search of resilience. and in search of financing.

Set at the high water mark of global climate commitments in 2015, the words of former leaders sound ludicrous today. Equally incongruous is the migration of one island family to New Zealand, which holds a lottery in which each year 75 lucky persons are chosen for working visas. The film also follows one women, a winner, who leaves her husband and small children to go work on the larger and fully developed island. Cars fill the parking lot at the airport, paperwork and bureaucracy mark her passage into work as a kiwi picker, and clean new sheets cover her soft bed.

While she labors to make enough money to uproot the rest of her family from their island home, Asote travels the world, searching for solutions. He travels to humanitarian conferences and to UN summits; he does talk shows and interviews; he tries to rally the voices and indignation of his fellow island leaders. He searches for a place where his people can go when the ocean swallows their home. The leaders of other nations are silent. No nation comes forward to say, “do not fear, we will take you in.” Asote is a man in search of a plan, in search of a pathway through which to navigate himself, the island, and the people who used to make their living there.

He achieves very little. A land purchase. He buys land from neighboring Fiji, a place for the people of Karibati to develop now and move to later. Fiji was not happy about this, “what if we want to develop? What if we need to use this land?” It is unclear who really negotiates this land sale, if the Fijian leaders do not want it. Nonetheless, it is a small piece. The land of Kiribati will stop producing well before it becomes officially uninhabitable and Asote is concerned about the loss of agricultural land. Fiji does not solve this problem, but It gives a bit of what Asote asks for in the UN chambers. He wants “some sense of comfort…some sense of security for the people.” He is calling for leadership where there is none, he asks, “who do we turn to for our people’s right to survive.”

He visits with the pope, who agrees to pray.

Pray for the survival of the people. Pray that their lives can continue unchanged. There is no logical or moral reason for the small people of this small island to be facing first the effects of the coming storm. Asote suggests that that moral logic is often lacking in human social systems. People thought enslaving Africans to work on plantations was just fine, they thought that apartheid was morally logical, and although Asote does not mention it, they thought destroying a tropical island to extract phosphate was perfectly acceptable.

The first two have been collectively condemned as immoral, and even though dark-skinned people continue to suffer the humiliation of picking kiwi for the affluent, as the winner of the New Zealand working lottery does, we have abolished those other abominations of human culture. Asote knows that these former atrocities no longer exist in full view, and he understands climate change to be in the same register. “Why”, he asks, “why did we not do anything about it before, when we knew, with all the science coming forward, that it was wrong.”

Climate change is wrong, it is an immoral affront, like slavery or apartheid. Or phosphate extraction? There are still invisible things about climate change. Asote thinks technology and new kinds of infrastructure can ensure the people’s right to survive. He looks to building a new island, under the sea. “Where things are very calm”, claims the designer of the ‘ocean spiral’. “There won’t be disasters like there are on land.” It will cost 50 trillion dollars and house 30-40,000 people. Kiribati’s population is 100,000… “They can build two.” The technocrat was unaware of the changing weather patterns bringing typhoons to the equator, the area best suited for deep ocean development. Just like space development, this is a perfectly normal course of action.

Asote is not calling for change. There is no cry for the radical economic transformations necessary to stem the coming tide, not from Asote, from the climate solution techno-wizards, nor from the climate justice protesters. Everyone just wants things to go on. People want lives for their children. The young mother who migrates to New Zealand adapts to the lifestyle and brings over the rest of her family, her nuclear family. Aunts, grandparents, and other relatives remain on the island while the father and two daughters accept the lottery prize and travel to New Zealand. There they adapt to the new lifestyle and in the final scene, their new baby, “a New Zealander” is happily gurgling, preparing to “have a different life.”

This is a film calling for action against climate change. It is a film showing the effects of a changing planet. And a film showing humans stubbornly unchanging, even when faced directly with it. If you watch it with your eyes open, you might see.


Watch the trailer for Asote’s Ark.