- Film & TV
- 10 Oct 19
Irish director Tom Burke on his new documentary, Losing Alaska, which shows how climate change is causing the coastal village of Newtok to slowly disappear.
Filmmaker Tom Burke always wanted to tell visual stories. First training as a photographer, he made his first interactive documentary about the Liberties during his Masters in in Trinity - and was instantly hooked. "I got intoxicated by how realities and real stories could be just as dramatic, just as interesting, just as surprising as any of the fictional stuff we were trying to come up with."
Or even more so. Burke's documentary, Losing Alaska, is an urgent and layered story that reveals the drastic consequences of climate change. Due to rising temperatures, the village of Newtok, Alaska is slowly vanishing into the sea. The 375 inhabitants of this vast and beautiful area of permafrost have lived for years with the constant fear of their village literally washing away, as the coastline is eroded at an alarming rate. But Burke's interest in the project was peaked when he read about the political divide within the tiny Yup'ik community, who were torn on how to deal with the crisis.
"It's a few stories combined," explains Burke. "You've got the climate change story, which is that the land is literally falling into the sea. It's unambiguous, you can see it happening in real time so it's a very visible marker for climate change. There's no debate of 'Is this happening?' It is absolutely happening. Secondly, Newtok has decided to move their village nine miles away to higher ground. That always seemed to me a very American thing to do, to pick up an entire town and move it. American culture and mythology have that pioneering narrative, where they establish new towns. But the third element is that in this village of around 350 people, they have fallen out with each other on very fundamental lines. Those three aspects made it irresistible to make the first trip, and after that, I was drawn to what it could be visually. The landscape is like no landscape I'd ever been in before, and the people were incredibly unguarded and honest and interesting."
Burke ended up making seven trips over four years to make his documentary, and the time between his visits meant that the changes to the coastline were shockingly apparent. "On the first trip in March 2015, there's about 75 yards between the coastline and the closest house," Burke explains. "I actually thought 'Is this really an emergency?' But by my last trip in December 2018, the closest house was 10 feet from the edge. I was sceptical at first, but I saw it happen."
The debate within the village is complex, as tribe elders are wedded to the idea of place and tradition, while some younger villagers believe that the community spirit can be maintained if they move - and also if the tribe takes on a new democratic framework, passing some power from the elders to young and passionate villagers. But the idea of place, tradition and democracy are complex for indigenous people, on whom a lot of terrible injustices have been inflicted in the name of American democracy.
"Identity is at the crux of a lot of these things," asserts Burke. "A lot of these people would identify as Yup'ik first, then Alaskan, then maybe American. It's not their primary identity. But it is an identity foisted on them from above. They pay taxes to the IRS, social services from the state of Alaska monitor if their children are going to school. And in terms of the debate about moving the village, they're only in this place because the American government said, 'We're putting a school here, so you have to come and send your kids here.' It's very complex."
Burke - a foreign white man who, in many ways, has the privilege of leaving a community in turmoil - found being Irish a distinct advantage. "Grant, the school principal, didn't know much about Ireland before I got there," he says. "The more Grant came to understand about Ireland and our history, the less he referred to me as a Kass'aq, their slightly derogatory slang for a white man! At first, I was just another Kass'aq asking questions. But the more he understood that Ireland weren't colonisers, we were colonised, the more he could take at face value that I was able to see his position. And more people started opening up to me. They accepted that I wanted to understand them, rather than projecting any narrative on them. There had been other white men in the village, but they were generally arms of the state - social workers, tax collectors. Once I was seen as different from that, it got easier."
Burke does feel an added sense of responsibility given that Newtok is about to change dramatically - whether they move or stay - rendering him a uniquely positioned historian. "Without sounding self-important, I do think about that stuff. One of the first films I made for TG4 was about an island in Lake Michigan beside Arainn Mhor in Donegal. Within a year of making that film, two of the main people in it had passed away. All of a sudden, we were the custodians of the last footage of these people, and it became very important to the families. I think if you're doing documentary correctly, you are creating this future archive. You're capturing things that are transient - so you have to do it well and keep guard of it, after the fact. The film should be a record of what the lifestyle is like, and how the Yup'ik operated here."
The film feels like urgent and necessary viewing, and has been warmly received in European festivals. An American premiere has yet to happen, and feels badly needed, given the prevalence of climate change denial among policy-makers. But Burke did get one shocking insight into the racism, apathy and alienation that the Yup'ik face - providing some context as to why they aren't receiving more attention and support from Americans as their village is literally erased.
"We met with a major US network who were very enthusiastic about the proposal and some initial footage that they saw," reveals Burke. "They requested a meeting, we met them at a film festival, and I had just come back from a trip so showed them some of the latest footage. The person watching it, their face started to drop, and after a minute they said, 'Oh wait. Is this a native village? That's not going to work for us.' I said, 'You told me your viewers love Alaska?' and the response I got was 'They do. They love white people doing things in Alaska.'"
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