Thule is the name given by American settlers to Qaanaaq, a main town on the icy northwestern coast of Greenland. Tuvalu, on the other hand, is a set of low-lying Pacific Islands that cover a total of ten square miles, sitting no higher than four metres above the sea. Though they lie on opposite ends of the earth, they are bound in a line drawn by director Matthias von Gunten, who tells us in opening title cards that he marveled at the exoticism of both as a child. In the course of filming his latest feature ThuleTuvalu, he finds them sharing a very human peril brought about by climate change. Both areas are facing an ongoing seasonal flux that is raising the sea level, changing the landscape and rupturing the lives of the people who have navigated it for millennia. By investigating these tolls, Von Gunten forms several solid visual metaphors and personal accounts that drive it home in sobering style.
More than their especially vulnerable geographies, the citizens in both places are chained to a lifestyle that depended on ecosystems that are vanishing before their eyes. We learn this in the tellings of two men in particular. Rasmus is a 41 year-old seal hunter who forewent a formal education to pick up his father’s trade, and now worries for the world his expected grandchildren will have to place. Kaipati is a Tuvaluan in much the same predicament, having learned about climate change from his seafaring days and now being faced with the dilemma of how to uproot his family from a money-free life of fishing and foraging. What unusual weather shifts and fears for the next generation exist in our first-world countries are tenfold for these men, especially since they are caught out in their middle age as being too old to change their skill-sets and too young to live out the remainder of their days before their residence become totally untenable. This endangers their basic human rights to home and happiness, and with an absence of narration, Rasmus and Kaipati make that clear in their own poignant (or poignantly translated) words.
Von Gunten himself relays information by writing gentle-fading title cards and conducting the intimate interviews, while cinematographer Pierre Mennel composes serene frames to track their daily routines. The resulting tone is a gentle but startling contrast that ThuleTuvalu spends a lot of time in, gently switching us from one country to the next in smart cuts by Claudio Cea and Caterina Mona. In this way, it’s only looking to root the complex issues in changes to domestic routine and family tradition within those states, rather than explore how such statehood is threatened on higher levels. Even a quick jaunt to Queenstown, New Zealand, where a few Tuvuluan migrants fear for their poorer friends and family back on the islands, makes no exploration of any immigration strategies from either country. No such moment exists in Greenland, but reference is made to friends that have already had to move in light of the melting ice and changing animal migration patterns. The only explicit portrayal of national or international politics is a UN press conference where Tuvaluan Prime Minister Apisai Lelemai begs for assistance from industrialised nations, which von Gunten resolves later by way of another title card that says they were pressured by those unnamed nations into accepting their fate. It’s a flat moment because he doesn’t quite toe the line of his own established scope, but it’s really only noticeable next to the strength of everything within it.
The best achievement of ThuleTuvalu is its litany of literal manifestations of climate change, which carry a shocking power as great as the mythological allure that drew von Gunten to their shores in the first place. The inspired images he and Mennel catch speak volumes – Kaipati standing on the arid remains of bushland choked by seeping seawater; a Qaanaaq elder whipping at empty snowfall, instead of the snow dogs that are becoming more superfluous every year; a Tuvaluan teacher fashioning a traditional dress out of cassette tape; Rasmus silhouetted by the gleaming lights of a distant settlement, no doubt powered by companies that are worsening his situation. Film means myriad opportunities to represent man’s tangle with the elements, and by doing so with minimal authorial intereference, ThuleTuvalu is a quietly effective reminder of the need for action.