The Hungry Tide

When your home is a coral atoll (see Wikipedia for atolls and other ‘coral islands’) in the middle of the ocean, you live in an exquisite but fragile, vulnerable place. The highest point of your island is only a couple of metres above sea level and the land is composed entirely of coral rubble and sand bound together only by the plants that have taken hold on it. Any particularly big storm knocks palms down and loosens the soil; any particularly high tide surges inland, leaving salt behind and reducing soil fertility even when it doesn’t wash the soil back out to sea; and rising sea levels spell certain disaster.

The Hungry Tide, a documentary by Tom Zubrycki, dramatises the problems facing small island nations in a time of climate change by focusing on Kiribati. It was premiered at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival and also shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Zubrycki tells the story primarily through Maria Tiimon, a young woman from one of Kiribati’s smaller islands who, exceptionally among her community, went to Sydney for her education. There she became involved in the campaign to tell the rest of the world what was happening to her home. She is a sympathetic lead and her courage in travelling to Copenhagen and putting her country’s case on the world stage is inspiring.

Copenhagen is contrasted with her home village: thatched huts under the palm trees, a tremendous sense of community and a way of life which revolves around food gardens and the sea. Zubrycki shows us, through Maria and other locals, what is happening – areas of land already lost to the sea in recent years, houses and land flooded by spring tides as we watch, and brave but under-resourced efforts to save threatened areas by building sea walls.

I saw the 52-minute version broadcast on SBS a week ago and was impressed by it but a friend in Melbourne who had recommended it to me after seeing the full-length film was quite disappointed:

I should have realized when I saw it was under an hour that it had been quite heavily cut. As such it has been reduced to a documentary rather than a film, which may be okay for someone who hadn’t seen the uncut version but for me it had lost its heart. The story of Maria and her family was almost non-existent yet it was the effect of climate change on this family, their village and their daily lives that created the impact.

I think President Tonge was only given a two minute statement but his other conversations were far more inspirational. What a pity they were lost. Also missing was … the story of the islanders in Robinvale picking fruit – a portent of what will become mainstream when many more island people become climate change refugees.

What seems to have happened in cutting the length by almost half is that the human stories that gave the film its emotional impact were first to go because the physical facts had to stay. That’s understandable but so is my friend’s disappointment: I saw the short version and thought ‘good documentary’ but she saw the full version and thought ‘great film.’ On that basis, the short version is recommended and the full version is highly recommended.

The Hungry Tide is also the title of a 2005 novel by Amitav Ghosh. It has no connection to Kiribati but it is a great book set in a fascinating part of the world – read about it in Wikipedia. We read it some years ago and it is also (independently) highly recommended.

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