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Shrinking the Rising Sea Level Story to a Single Island

The Carteret Islanders are some of the world’s first climate refugees. Their homeland, a tiny island in the South Pacific, is fast losing ground to rising sea levels. The families who have lived there for dozens of generations have made the agonizing decision to relocate their entire community. Filmmakers Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger documented the Carteret Islanders’ plight in Sun Come Up. We spoke with Redfearn about the importance of telling these stories of climate displacement.
GOOD: How were you received by the community?\n
JENNIFER REDFEARN: It’s a chain of six islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It’s quite remote, there’s not a lot of traffic back and forth. So it’s not at all a tourist destination and there really isn’t a lot of contact with the outside world. We were really well received though. It was sort of awkward when we first arrived, but the islanders were really generous with their time and sharing their stories.
G: Are the islanders generally aware of the larger scale causes of the local changes that they’re seeing?\n
JR: When they first started to witness changes, they didn’t know why. Ursula Rakova, head of the relocation operation, was born on the Carteret Islands and has traveled abroad to get her education, so she has become aware of what’s happening internationally. She taught the community about the science. Twenty years ago, they had no idea what was going on. Now they’re well aware.
G: They must feel terribly helpless. How were their attitudes about having so little control or impact on what’s happening to their islands?\n
JR: We found that different people are dealing with this uncertainty differently. The elders on the islands, they’re not so interested in moving. They’re accustomed to that way of life and have no interest in moving and adapting to a new society or culture. The younger generation has the same uncertainty and fears, but they are approaching it differently. They’re looking ahead at how to rebuild their community somewhere else.
G: Where does the title Sun Come Up come from?\n
JR: In tak pidgin (the local dialect), they have a phrase san ka map that means sunrise. It seemed fitting, as it’s a tragic story, but also one of hope and resilience. They’ve got this incredible plan in place for the relocation. In this time of incredible frustration and fear, there’s still a great sense of perseverance and resilience.
G: So what’s the plan exactly?\n
JR: The island that they’re going to move to is Bougainville, it’s much larger and mountainous and 50 miles away across the open ocean. Bougainville also just got over a 10-year civil war, and there are still some problems with violence. But there’s also a lot of talk about starting over, and this film gets into how these two communities—both traumatized in their own way—are starting over.
So we followed a group of young people who went over to Bougainville, traveling from village to village to build relationships and trust and figure out where exactly to relocate.
G: Are they being welcomed with open arms?\n
JR: It’s mixed. The villagers we spoke to in Bougainville were incredibly candid about the problems that the Carteret Islanders may face, like dealing with some of the aggression that’s still on the island, the residual problems of the aftershocks of civil war. It’s a part of the world where land isn’t bought or sold like we do; it’s passed on from generation to generation, and becomes a part of their souls. So much of their identity and community is tied to that land. So here’s one community that’s losing their land—and, in a sense, their culture and ancestry—and another that’s being asked to share theirs.
Still, there are profound instances of generosity. One land owner got up during one meeting and says, “Your story has moved me to tears. I want to give you some land.”
G: Your film is one of the first detailed, personal accounts of climate migration. Why tell these stories?\n
JR: First, for the sake of raising awareness. We also want this project to be used as a tool for the islanders and their relocation program—maybe to help serve as a lesson to others going through the same thing. We want to use this film to create a dialogue around solutions. It’s such a huge issue: 250 million could be displaced by climate change by mid-century.
We would love to partner with an engineer and programmer and create a computer program where you can have videos about engineering solutions, human rights solutions and legal solutions. You could load it on a laptop and NGOs, communities, and humanitarian groups could use it as a tool to travel around with and present solutions.
G: This is one of the first stories, but far from the last. How do you hope to see others step up and help cover this issue?\n
JR: The people within these affected communities need to be documenting these stories. They are witnessing the changes every day. They see the changes on the ground. They need to be better involved. We need to figure out ways to empower them to get their stories out, whether through print, video, photography, blogging, or however. The voices of the impacted are definitely the strongest ways to get the story out.
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