Matthieu Rytz was caught up in a whirlwind when I reached him at Sundance, but in making “Anote’s Ark,” frenzy has been par for the course.
“It’s been very busy actually,” says Rytz, who spent the previous four years traversing between his home in Montreal to the small Pacific Island nation of Kiribati for the film. “And I don’t have other point of reference. It’s my first movie ever. I didn’t even do a short before, so it’s like I didn’t have any expectations. I guess I started with the top, so it’s been a really interesting experience and I’ve learned a lot.”
A still photographer by trade, the transition to filmmaker may have been an adjustment for Rytz, but he didn’t seem all that fazed by the fact that he would soon be heading to a private filmmakers’ brunch with Robert Redford, perhaps a byproduct of accompanying Kiribati’s President Anote Tong around the world as he addressed leaders around the world from Pope Francis to President Obama in his crusade to combat climate change that could wipe out the 100,000 residents of the island within this century. Following President Tong to the 2014 Climate Summit in New York or the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Rytz shows how Tong’s passionate advocacy is falling on mostly deaf ears, with the President taking it upon himself to come up with unconventional survival plans that include relocating Kiribati’s entire population to nearby Fiji or building a floating island that could house 30,000 to 50,000 people.
While President Tong can only speak in hypotheticals about the future, Rytz shows how pressing the reality is for the people in Kiribati as the filmmaker joins a fisherman and his wife — Ato and Surmary — as they grapple with uncertain weather conditions on a day-to-day basis, already having their home flooded by the rising ocean levels surrounding the island. The instability leads Surmary to apply for a visa program that will allow the couple and their family to relocate to New Zealand, but Rytz takes great pains to show even after the government approves their move, it will extremely hard to leave Kiribati behind, upsetting their way of life in ways that are unimaginable. In capturing the natural beauty of Kiribati, both in its rich cultural traditions and its extraordinary topography, Rytz conveys the enormity of what will be lost should the global community continue to kick the can down the road in terms of preparing for the vast impact climate change will have in reshaping society and existing infrastructure. As that campaign to raise awareness continued into Park City, Rytz spoke about how he organized such a comprehensive look at the remote island while being a largely one-man band, what he learned in joining President Tong as he met with global leaders and condensing a sprawling story four years in the making into a cogent 80-minute feature.
How did this come about?
I went to Kiribas as a photojournalist on an assignment and I met with President Tong during that fist trip. I was so amazed by his charisma and his charm, but also by like the incredible task he had in front of him saving his nation. In my mind, there was no doubt I wanted to make a feature film having him as a main character, so it all started with my first meeting with him.
[But] when I wanted to make a movie, [I thought] if we just have Anote Tong as a main character, it may be a bit dry. I feel about most of the climate change movies, the people just think about climate change — we see recently the latest Al Gore movie [“An Inconvenient Sequel”] and the DiCaprio one [“The 11th Hour”], and it’s very important those movies exist for big outreach, but we don’t really connect to the people who have really been affected by the climate change in their daily lives, so from the beginning, I felt like intertwining a story of adaptation [on the part of Kiribati residents] basically would make a bigger emotional impact than just having a president speaking about it.
How did you meet Surmary and Ato?
Basically, there’s this program called PAC [Pacific Access Category Resident Visa] in New Zealand that [grants temporary citizenship to] only 75 people a year. It’s a bit like a Green Card in the States, like a lottery, so people can sign up for a Visa and their number gets picked. I had a contact in Kiribas in the town of Tarawa that worked for the embassy, and it was actually confidential information, but I was able to get a handle on it, so I had a beat on the people who would get picked for this program. I was lucky enough to meet with Surmary as she was still in Kiribas and [started] covering her life there and then following the story.
It must’ve been helpful to find that Summary appears to have been shooting footage herself of the devastation of the island. What was it like to find that?
That’s [actually] a neighbor going around with a laptop, using the webcam. I was very fortunate when I met them and they wanted to share their materials with me and I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing” and they gave me a copy of it. But it’s interesting in a way because the first time [Surmary] speaks [is making this introduction to the neighbor where] she’s like “Oh, this filmmaker is doing this climate change movie,” and it was a nice way within the documentary to make them a bit more active into the process, rather than having the filmmaker just filming them. I tried to bring them a bit more into the center of the story.
How did you go about shooting Kiribati? You shoot the island in a really evocative way.
I spent almost three years shooting the film and I was shadowing Anote Tong for two years, traveling a lot following the president back and forth maybe five or six times back to the island, every time for a period of maybe two to three weeks. So it was quite a lot of time, but I hired Briar March, a cinematographer in New Zealand to follow the story [there] and we worked very closely, so I had almost daily contact with the characters and whenever something was important, I sent [him].
I also had people [in Kiribati] — I gave them a camera, like one guy…it’s not much – maybe a minute of the movie, but still [getting] some images I was not about to get because I was somewhere else. When you see the child leaving leaving Kiribas to reach New Zealand, when the family gets reunited, I needed two cameras – one in New Zealand and one in Kiribas, so it was quite a lot of organization just to make sure we had the proper coverage. I also had a drone pilot because I’m not an expert and I wanted a real professional of aerial photography.
But all the rest of the footage, I had a very strict way of shooting with only one Prime lens and it was a challenge because using prime lenses in documentaries is not easy for the coverage, but in the end I’m really happy because it gives it such a cinematic look. We worked very hard to make the best photography we could. There’s three characters in the movie – there’s Surmary and the president, but the third one is basically the island itself as a land, vanishing and going underwater. But [we asked] how do you portray that? And I thought using this photography, it’s powerful because we can feel what’s going to be lost. If the photography was poor, it wouldn’t have the same kind of emotional impact.
I realized that you must’ve sought out a visit during storm season. What was that like to film in?
The storm is a good example of [piecing this together]. It’s not one storm. It’s [from a variety] footage I took at the time and then we edited as a storm, so you know like the weather crushing the wall is maybe one time and then the drone footage of the boats is another time and then the stuff that’s on the boat [came from footage] I’ve been shooting for more than four years. I have almost 300 hours of footage and we were lucky enough to just get the best of the best.
What was it like accompanying the president to all these meetings with foreign dignitaries?
When I started [following] Anote to meet the Pope and [President] Obama, it was just very interesting as a life experience. But also it taught me a lot about politics and how it’s such a game and how all of those people have their own agendas. It’s a bit different with the Pope because he’s a moral figure and not really a politician, but [what] I tried to convey in the movie is we’re speaking about the survival of a people [and] I was really amazed at [how world leaders] don’t speak of it as something that’s really important. They just put it in the political agenda. And then it becomes important if the voters start to think it’s important, but we see what happens in the United States with the change in administration. It feels very much based on the electorate and it’s something that should be something that’s apolitical because if the planet is doomed, there won’t be any more humans to make politics. [laughs] It should be an issue that’s bigger than politics.
Over four years, was what was happening in the outside world affect what you ultimately wanted to say?
Not really, actually. I was quite surprised. It’s a long process. We spent almost a year editing, but now I’m watching the movie and [now] I step back with some distance to it and I’m quite amazed actually how it’s close to the first draft of my scenario like five years ago. From the beginning, I didn’t want to actually make a climate change movie. I think it’s a movie about morality and other philosophical questions about humanity — after all, it’s one of the greatest issues we’re facing, but not like another climate change movie with scientists telling us how bad it is. With that perspective, I’m glad I fulfilled my goal.