Only half a year ago everything was fine. We were in the midst of the preparations for our film project on Kiribati. We had a clearance from the president’s office with good prospects for a film permit and long-term visas. Just before Christmas (we were still in Germany) we received the message that our clearance was abolished. Nobody could tell us for how long. We flew anyway, wanting to check an resolve everything on the spot in Kiribati. (Link to our first blog post)
What has happened since then? Suddenly, we were on a diplomatic mission. We told each and everyone of our project and our situation. Everybody listened to us with interest and said they were very sorry; they could not understand it at all. We auditioned at all kinds of institutions, talked to senators and secretaries of state. Without success. We were in close contact with the Presidential Office and, at its suggestion, wrote a long letter in which we re-introduced our project. This has not been answered yet.
We got trapped in a net of political complications that had little to do with us. But it prevented us from realizing our participative film project in Kiribati as planned. Only nobody would tell us explicitly. We were told to wait. And wait again. And wait some more. We were waiting in the right place at the wrong time.
Our approach convinced everyone, also at government level even if it sometimes took some effort. Still, they were all very cautious. There had been too many unpleasant experiences with foreign filmmakers and journalists, who arrived with preconceived ideas in Kiribati, with stories they only wanted to illustrate with the right pictures, without any interest whatsoever in what Kiribati really is like. They came with their ready-made scripts, written within two weeks and shot just for a week or two. The most outrageous story was that of the Japanese ARD office, which wanted to film a fisherman who studied at the Marine Training Center in Tarawa and returns to his home island on a traditional small catamaran. They were just looking for the right person. Only too bad that these boats are rarely suitable for the high seas, are out of fashion in Kiribati and above all that such a fisherman was nowhere to be found.
So we were making progress. We felt the wind in our sails. We did not bring any stories in our heads, and so we told the government. In our workshops, we wanted to induce the people of Kiribati to tell their own stories of which we knew nothing and could not know until we would hear them.
It seemed like a good strategy and it was the truth.
At this stage the government seemed to look at our project almost favorable. But then something happened that made the truth a bad argument. It dissolved any pleasure the government might have had in the idea that people on Kiribati would tell themselves what was important and true to them.
A ferry sank on the way from Nonouti to Tarawa. Almost one hundred people sought shelter in the too few lifeboats and drowned or died of thirst or of the scorching heat over six agonizing days on the open ocean, long before the authorities had even an idea of the disaster.
Criticism of the government became loud. A demonstration was broken up by the police, people were quickly removed and placed under house arrest. But the social media could not be kept quiet by the government. People read and discussed the reports and speeches on the causes of the disaster on Facebook. It was about the affordable but missing position detectors on the ferries, the dilapidated state of the ferry, which nevertheless left for a 2 days crossing of the wide ocean. It was above all about the failure of the government to enforce laws on security measures that look beautiful on paper, but never were implemented in reality.
On the background of these changed circumstances our participatory approach did not fit at all anymore. The government was afraid of loud criticism from the population. A New Zealand reporter team was prevented from reporting on the ferry accident on Kiribati, they were forced to delete their data, ie interviews and photos. Again and again, the reporters were asked if they would write about climate change. The political situation is sharpening on Kiribati, the new government wants to establish their power and tries to isolate itself to the outside. Journalists have to leave, foreign film crews no longer get filming permits and/or are not allowed to enter. On the radio, the population was even called on to report tourists with movie cameras to the police. When taking pictures we were repeatedly asked who we were, what we did here and if we had a film permission. The police inquired about us with our landlord. Hidden interviews were out of the question. Because there is no secret, lonely places on the main island of South Tarawa. Also, we did not want to get our friends and acquaintances and climate change activists, who would have liked to work with us, into trouble.
We were not prepared for Kiribati’s changed political line. The aim of our project was quite different, namely not to work in secret, but to create the highest level of publicity, to invite people to participate in our workshops and to develop the ideas for the film together with them. In a climate of rising anxiety and persistent uncertainty, that was impossible.
They gave us the runaround concerning the decision on the film permission, let us wait indefinitely. Soon our tourist visas would expire. Therefore we ourselves decided to pull up stakes and leave Kiribati. We moved to the Marshall Islands. Another small island nation in the middle of the vast Southern Pacific, threatened by climate change, awaiting a similar fate as Kiribati. But there is one key difference: the government’s open management of the effects of climate change. And here, too, there is a strong social base of movements that concern themselves with climate change.
Despite these unhappy experiences in Kiribati we do not consider our 7 weeks there as wasted time, but are very grateful for the experience. We are happy about the many small and large encounters with people, which allowed us an insight into the culture and the politics of this island state. Mark captured some of those moments on his photo blog. (Kameradist Wagner) We always felt welcome to all we met and the interest in the project was great. We hope for a rethinking of the government and also for being able to return to Kiribati in the not too distant future to shoot some material there.
We would like to thank all our friends from Kiribati for their warmth, their confidence, their openness, the joking and the shared laughter. We will miss you very much! Kabuta, never stop playing the guitar and singing, even if you’re going to be an old pastor. Abe, one day you will be the president and then a very, very old cat without tail will be your guide. Kataunati, you’re sure to go to sea and see the world. Hey, and Aurora: You can do that and Abe will help you.
Kam bati n rabwa
(Thank you all!)
Text and photos: Christina Schulze