OCEANIA: Journey to the Cente

Oceania is a lyrical documentary that explores climate change over 8 years through the eyes of two characters in the remote Pacific Island nation of Kiribati. Tekinati, is deeply grounded in her indigenous culture and environment, despite generations of Western depredation. Now, as the climate changes, her adult son Charles tries to find a path into his future, which becomes increasingly disrupted. Some Western environmentalists have viewed Kiribati and other Pacific nations simply as a canary in climate change’s cage – their destruction proof of a climate emergency. In Oceania, we are offered counter-narratives that examine deeper geopolitical histories of colonization and the impact this continues to have on the I-Kiribati people and possible solutions for their future.  

Within the story, I-Kiribati worldviews are centralized, as Charles and Tekinati examine the relationship between their home island and the West, what they refer to as “Matang” – a place beyond the familiar. The Republic of Kiribati was known to the original inhabitants as “Tungaru” which means the “center”. Western climate scientists have predicted these islands will become uninhabitable by the end of this decade. The loss of these coral atolls located geographically at the intersection of the Equator and International Dateline they believe– will have great implications for all life on the planet. 

In the beginning of the film, we first meet Tekinati — a strong woman and mother of five. Waves lap, roosters crow, a distant song carried through the village are the first sounds of the day here. We watch as coconuts are chopped, water is fetched from the well as a grandmother and grandson gather mussels at low tide. We see the last remaining mangrove right at the shore of her lagoonside home. As we journey with Tekinati and her family across the island, an unfolding and intimate portrait of lives embedded in a traditional, yet changing community gradually emerges.

We spend time with Tekinati and her sister, Kabotarenga, singing and recalling childhood memories. We see the sisters float on their backs together, holding hands on the surface of the water—just as their father had taught them to do when the sea became rough, and they were thrown out of the canoe. His words remind them not to panic—rather to find the calm in their center. Tekinati shares her “soft solution” to coastal erosion at her shore, her approach distinct from the hard solutions offered by western engineers traveling to her home.

Throughout the film, Charles continues to face the difficult choice to stay and assist in preserving the subsistence life of his family or prepare for what a changing climate may bring and leave the islands for further education and a life spent working within the global cash economy. He speaks of his path into the future as “chasing the sun”, daily understanding that western scientists have predicted his home island and ultimately the I-Kiribati way of life will disappear, completely, in his lifetime.

The film journeys with him to Fiji to pursue practical education. There he lives with his relatives, a Banaban migrant community displaced just over 100 years earlier because of phosphate mining. Charles has a conversation with the oldest living survivor in the community, who remembers at age 6, being taken by boat away from his home island of Banaba. He describes that after mining over so manpit ftpo decades, his home island is now dead, the surface just like that of the moon above.pppp huh k B J Lyft

A series of sequences introduce Kiribati’s history and the story of contact with the West. In an expressionist reconstruction narrated and hand-mapped -[by Charles over his sweeping aerial imagery from above, he explains how atolls are formed. Kiribati is a trace of what once was, a place which has been occupied for 6000 years – until the arrival of the missionary Bingham who brought the governance of a Christian god to Kiribati in the 1800s. Tekinati then shares her story of Bingham – one that is very different then the historically sanctioned archives she holds in her own hands.

As Tekinati and Charles’ journeys advance, our vantage intermittently moves to the landscape from above, inviting reflection on the western systems and spaces that separate us from one another and the living planet we share. We view the logistics industry in the west from a bird’s eye view: the regimented constant mechanized movement of goods, revealing underlying values driven by rationality, efficiency and fueled by a continuous cycle of production and consumption. These landscapes are contrasted with Charles’ explorations of his home island and vast surrounding ocean as viewers are guided on an intimate journey with his interior reflections and sweeping cinematic frame.

Tekinati and Charles both share their understanding of time, embodied and in relationship with the shifting of the moon and tide. Charles directly contests the notion of “abstract time” and its relationship to productivity, he shares, “I don’t believe in this teaching that time is money, and I don’t care if I have money. I want to live in our traditional ways and be free.” 

Towards the end, Tekinati’s sister, Kabotarenga, has died. After traveling to both Fiji and the Marshall Islands, Charles finally returns home. He describes missing everything about his mother while away, and the grandfather he never met as being everywhere —the sea, the land, the sky and in the stars overhead. He speaks about belonging to his home island. Without this sense of belonging, he says, part of himself will be forever lost.

In the final scene, we watch as Tekinati’s village plants new mangrove shoots to replace the last mangrove–a tree on Tekinati Lagoon home shore that we have watched throughout the course of the film go from thriving to dy/ing, now newly replanted. We watch Charles and Tekinati, finally reunited, as they carry a fishing net to his boat. As the sun sets, he sails off alone as she watches from the shore. Finally, we are invited to journey to the true center of the island, the place I-Kiribati believe holds all beginnings and endings.  Tekinati shares the end of “Nareau the Creator’s” story, when the world and all life was lying in the dark with the sky closed upon the land like a clamshell. In this moment, Riike the Eel was called upon to push up the sky from the Earth to allow light in. He stretched until he could reach no further. At this moment, the humans called out “Maua nako tia nako e!” (Let us all heave together now!) and as they joined in all at once, light was finally let in, and they were able to see one another, for the very first time. In the last images, we are offered fire, and watch as embers rise toward the sky, then cut to just under the surface of the sea with the sun’s light piercing the surface and the main characters, swimming toward it – all together.