Sun Come Up is part of a much larger body of media that attempts to localize climate change for a global audience. What sets this short Academy Award® nominated documentary apart from most of its counterparts, however, is the emotional intensity with which its protagonists, and I imagine many viewers, experience deep anxiety, fear, passion, joy and finally melancholy. It is a film that not only puts a human face on climate change but also evokes our response to its full range of shared affect.
It is not a data driven film. By the time it was released in 2010, the filmmakers could, correctly, assume that their target audiences, mostly well educated individuals in the Global North, had already been inundated by a king tide of facts and infographics. Instead, Sun Come Up tells the story of the Carteret Islanders (living on low lying atolls in northeastern Papua New Guinea) and the start of their forced migration to Bougainville, approximately 50 km across open ocean. It is a heart-wrenching and inspiring story about the power of place, the need for survival, and the desire to secure a viable future for posterity. One of the most poignant moments comes near the end of the film when one of the organizers of the migration makes a tearful reflection on the plight of her people: “Most of our culture will have to live in memory. That part of our life will be washed away. How do we keep this attachment to our home?”
But the difficulties of migration are not limited to leaving home or an anticipated nostalgia for a way of life not yet lost. Bougainville is not, according the Carteret Islanders in the film, equivalent to their own happy islands. It is a place of foreboding, where men drink too much alcohol and carry guns. It is a place profoundly traumatized by civil war.
This sets up a primary tension in the film, between the peace of the Carterets and the dangers of Bougainville, on one hand, and the parallel traumas of war and climate change, on the other. Over the course of the narrative, we meet several Bougainvilleans who volunteer to help the Carteret Islanders find land and do so because they view the war and the effects of climate change as having similar social and psychological effects. For some, it is also a chance for redemption. We are introduced to Basil, whose brothers were killed in the civil war and who took his revenge as a soldier for the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. Helping the Carteret Islanders is, for him, an act of atonement, an act of hope for political and cultural healing. Oddly, war and warming are made to form a common substance of brotherhood.
But it would be misleading to think that appeals based directly on climate change is the most important rhetorical strategy used by the Carteret Islanders in their search of a new home. From the beginning, Linus, their host and a Bougainvillean chief, advises them that “When you speak about climate change, don’t just speak from you head. Use your heart when you talk.” He could just as easily have said “use your stomach,” since most of the emotional appeals made in the film revolve around impending starvation, the decreased capacity in the Carterets to grow swamp taro and other crops, and pitiful rations of only two coconuts per day.
Food, in this case, is significant both rhetorically and theoretically because it lends a culturally powerful answer to the difficult question of how to make climate change both local and persuasive. The Pidgin word for “to eat” (kai) is not only commonly used throughout the film but is also shared throughout the Pacific Islands region. Therefore, while the “sinking islands” trope has played out powerfully in global media, Sun Come Up merits respect for showing more locally, and regionally, salient concerns with sustenance and with the sharing of food as powerful social glue.
Furthermore, the importance of locating climate change in food is not unique to the Carteret Islanders. In my own fieldwork in Kiribati (which, along with the Maldives, is one of the most globally publicized groups of “sinking islands”) showed that local concerns about climate change are not derived mostly from a sense of islands disappearing but from the much more urgent need for food and water security.
However, the ethnographically more sophisticated emphasis on food (what we might think of as a climate change-sustenance complex) potentially complicates elegant narratives about climate change and migration. Food insecurity can, after all, result from multiple forces, including development projects, ineffective resource management, over-population and pollution. In many places throughout the Pacific Islands region (including Tarawa, Kiribati and Viti Levu, Fiji, where I have worked), all of these factors are seen as affecting the possible need for, and timing of, population relocation in the face of multiple climate change scenarios.
It is on this point that Sun Come Up may be too elegant. Perhaps in the case of the Carteret Islanders, the situation is a simple matter of coastal inundation causing food shortages and the need for migration. If so, however, the Carteret Islanders are not representative of many, possibly most, future climate refugees. In some of these places, the very real effects of climate change are viewed by some stakeholders as being outpaced by the effects of poor development practices and other factors. Low lying atolls, especially, are vulnerable to even small-scale construction projects that can lead to the destruction of food species habitat by altering the way sediment is deposited. Even small population increases can be devastating without outside assistance.
The way this film represents climate refugees raises important questions about how we are to localize climate change, at home and far away, and about what kinds of narratives we need to become responsible actors. Elegant, emotionally powerful stories may be able to prompt us to action (although this is far from certain) but may also lead to inappropriate actions if not corrected with the complexities of local perceptions, behaviors, and effects of global forces. Sun Come Up is a powerful attempt to localize climate change but one that is ultimately directed toward a global and distant audience that still thinks too broadly about what climate change means on the ground, and in the ocean.