Urgent tales of global crisis at the Berlin Film Festival

A Berlin film festival is highlighting climate change in Asia and Africa , writes Ali Nobil Ahmad

Still from 'Thank You For The Rain'. anthropoSCENE opens with ‘Thank You for the Rain,’ a collaborative experiment by Norwegian filmmaker Julia Dahr and Kenyan farmer Kisilu Musya. It captures the latter’s extraordinary journey from local farmer to global activist in the lead up to the 2015 COP21 climate talks in Paris.
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"What a sky!" Norwegian filmmaker Julia Dahr's amazement at the stars that light up the firmament of a dry Kenyan night in the opening scene of Thank You for the Rain is well intended. She quickly corrects herself, however, as a string of clouds scuds tantalizingly across the constellations: "No Julia. This sky means problems. It means no rain." The admonishment is Kisilu Musya's, a farmer whose video diary provides poignant raw material for Dahr's intimate portrait of a man and his family living on the front line of global warming. 

When the rains finally do arrive with crackles of thunder, Kisilu's joy is shortlived. Surveying the destruction to his property caused by extreme weather, he jokes philosophically the next day: "We have a new house." His wife Christina, adding to the black humour, exclaims: "My underwear is all over the place!"   

Thank You for the Rain is one of 14 documentaries and art films at a festival of screenings and talks this month, which I curated, and that are showing at the Moviemento cinema in Kreuzberg, Berlin. AnthropoSCENE – the festival's title – is a pun on the popular scientific term, Anthropocene, which in its original spelling represents the current geological era of human-induced climactic instability. Coined in the 1980s by biologist Eugene Stoermer, its connotations of human vulnerability and interconnection with nature have resonated widely since the 2000s, piquing the interest of artists, philosophers and commentators.

Despite its fashionable title, the festival's use of cinema to raise awareness about climate change is hardly new. Surveys show Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth played an important role in focusing public attention on global warming. But Gore's popular science narrative frames the crisis narrowly as an environmental one associated with melting ice caps, endangered polar bears and arctic fauna.

In reality, "the climate crisis is a justice crisis – it's about people", says Tadzio Müller, an expert in climate and energy issues at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung political foundation, which is co-organising the festival. Pointing out that awareness in affluent societies about the global repercussions of privileged lifestyles remains low, Müller says: "We've done most to mess the planet up, yet it's mostly people in the global South – those least responsible for global warming – with darker skin [who are] dying".

If Hurricane Harvey served as a reminder that not even wealthy nations can be spared the ravages of climate change, sparse media coverage of recent extreme flooding in South Asia, which killed thousands, underlines the differentiated weight accorded to suffering in the North and South. So too, last month's under-reported mudslide in Sierra Leone. "The advance of the sea is a permanent threat on the African coast," says Idrissou Mora-Kpai, director of Arlit, deuxième Paris, one of several films set in the African continent to be screened at anthropoSCENE.

"In Benin, where I come from, many houses have already been swallowed up over the last couple of years", he says, pointing out that disaster victims in the Third World are still mainly unaware of the link between their plight and climate change. "Unfortunately, few media raise awareness, and intellectuals who do talk about it are not given a platform. Governments and multinational companies try to keep people unaware of the real causes."  

Responding to this knowledge deficit, anthropoSCENE's four-day programme sets out to highlight the human consequences of climate change in the Middle East, Africa and Asia through several strategies. Firstly, through works such as Dahr's, which document experiences of, and responses to, altered weather patterns and climate-related disasters. Another cluster of films investigates the fallout of energy policies falsely touted as antidotes to the problem of carbon emissions. Films from Turkey, India and South Africa expose the eco-friendly marketing used to promote hydro and atomic power for what critics call 'greenwashing'. Award-winning director Sanjay Kak, who is travelling to Berlin to attend the screening of his Words on Water, says: "The discredited notion that hydropower is somehow clean and green, is still popular with the Indian state." Aside from the well-documented, often irreversible ecological damage that building large dams for hydroelectric schemes cause to rivers, Kak points out that 20 million people of India's poorest and most vulnerable people have been displaced by the 3,000-plus dams built in the past 50 years: "This is more than a controversy, it's an absolute scandal."

With rural populations expelled from, or gradually abandoning agricultural areas of their own accord, the South's ecological crisis is accelerating urbanisation and migration further afield to Europe itself. Films such as Arlit raise the prospect of a future marked by climate refugees, a topic of particular importance given the controversies that surround migration and asylum in Germany.

For populations that cannot afford to emigrate, however, a different kind of environmental displacement results: habitats are transformed by the slow violence of toxic pollution, resulting in estrangement from place without mobility. Legacy Warnings! is a harrowing documentary of the reality of South Africa's so-called 'nuclear renaissance'. Long after companies leave with their profits, squatter settlements built on sites of uranium extraction are polluted by contaminated water; children are left to play amid the debris of discarded infrastructure.

And yet, from Turkey's Black Sea region to Johannesburg, affected populations are anything but passive. Farming communities uprooted by droughts and floods display strikingly similar responses to displacement – trauma followed by anger – then resistance targeted at the sources of discontent: politicians, corporations and the economic system as a whole. Critique and mobilisation often takes inspiration from the ethnic, spiritual and linguistic traditions and cultures of neglected regions. In Mohammad Ehsani's Lady Urmia, a mystical meditation on the slow death of the world's third largest saltwater lake, the lake herself recounts legends and myths over imagery of Azerbaijan's traditional attire and dance.

All of which is a long way from mainstream environmentalism in the affluent West, where green political consciousness remains associated with recycling, animal protection and abstract talk of 'saving' the planet. Environmentalism in the South, this festival makes clear, consists instead of immediate, highly localised battles for life, livelihoods and local ecosystems.

By depicting Kisilu Musya's remarkable journey from anonymity to activist on the global stage, films like Thank You for the Rain capture the dramatic narrative potential of such battles, ensuring those on the front line do not remain isolated. They do so effectively by connecting the macro problem of climate change to universal micro questions that might define any individual life: in Kisilu's case, how to be a good father, a good husband, a strong leader. At times he lapses into despondency. Following a deadlock at the 2015 climate talks in Paris, eyes moist with emotion, he laments: "COP 21 is a battlefield – you are there to be seen not heard." Soon enough, his tone switches back to determined resolution. Towards the end of the film, however, he asks, with trepidation: "Are we to fight climate change, or will climate change fight us?"

President Donald Trump's withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Accord suggests this question, in the lead up to the November's UN climate conference in Bonn, remains as pertinent as ever.

'AnthropoSCENE: Film and Climate Justice in Asia and Africa' runs from Thursday to Sunday at the Moviemento cinema in Berlin


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