Pacific Scoop

Climate refugees plight documentary tipped for Oscars

Sun Come Up film still

The Sun Come Up ... an agonising decision to relocate the Carterets' entire community before the islands disappear beneath the rising waves. Photo: Big Red Barn Films

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Ben Jarvis

Carteret Islanders have been called  the world’s first climate refugees. Their homeland, a remote chain of  six small islands in the South Pacific, is fast losing ground to rising  sea levels.

The 1000 or so people whose families have lived there for dozens of generations have made an agonising decision to relocate their entire community before it disappears beneath the rising waves.

In June 2008, filmmakers Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger learned of the refugees’ plight and headed to the Carteret Islands, video equipment in tow, hoping to share their story with the world. Their documentary, Sun Come Up, was released last year.

On Sunday night, it is up for an Academy Award in the best documentary short category.

Redfearn has a background in environment studies, a journalism degree from Columbia University, and had worked on several television series, but Sun Come Up is her debut film.

She first heard about the Carteret Islanders from a forwarded humanitarian e-mail alert; after reading about them, she could focus on little else. Three months after receiving the e-mail, Redfearn and filmmaking partner Metzger landed in the South Pacific and started shooting.

They weren’t sure what to expect, but they had been encouraged to come by Ursula Rakova, head of the Carteret relocation programme.

‘Sharing their stories’
They were well received, and the islanders were, according to Redfearn, “really generous with their time and sharing their stories.”

They were well aware of why their islands were shrinking and the global issues behind the local changes.

“When they first started to witness changes, they didn’t know why,” Redfearn explains. “But Ursula was born on the Carteret Islands and has traveled abroad to get her education so she has become aware of what’s happening internationally. She taught the community about the science.”

The filmmakers didn’t find the islanders to be helpless or angry.

“More than anything else,” Redfearn says, “there’s a great feeling of uncertainty.”

The island’s elders would prefer to stay, despite the risks. They grew up there, spent their whole lives there, and “have no interest in moving and adapting to a new society or culture”. But the younger generations are looking at things differently.

“They’re looking ahead at how to rebuild their community somewhere else.”

Video short
With dozens of hours of footage, Redfearn and Metzger returned from the Carterets and cut a quick video short of the story, then entered the Media That Matters Film Festival.

The film won the Jury Award, but, perhaps more importantly, that’s where Redfearn and Metzger found a perfect partner for the project in Abigail Disney, great niece of Walt Disney and an award-winning documentary filmmaker in her own right.

Disney was a judge for the festival and loved the short.

“It had a very human take on a problem that tends to be primarily intellectual for most people,” she says.

Disney’s filmmaking credits include the acclaimed Pray the Devil Back to Hell. She signed on as executive producer for Sun Come Up.

“I’m pretty much only concerned with films that have a social message,” Disney told me.

“But I’m not interested in films that are primarily messages of doom. I’m interested in films that show ways that people will thrive through difficult situations, and how they very often bring some surprising humanity and creativity and kindness in trying times.”

Story of hope
Even the title of Redfearn’s film title reflects that optimism. It comes from a phrase of local dialect Tok Pisin, san ka map, which means sunrise.

“It seemed fitting, as it’s a tragic story, but also one of hope and resilience,” Redfearn said.

With Disney on board, the filmmakers needed to get back to the islands to film footage for a longer documentary. To raise money, they turned to the crowd-sourced funding platform Kickstarter.

When they returned to the South Pacific, the relocation plans were moving fast. The Carteret Islanders’ future home is Bougainville, a much larger and mountainous island some 70 km acros the open ocean from the Carterets.

Bougainville already has some of its own problems, including a 10-year civil war in the 1990s.

“We followed a group of young people who went over to Bougainville,” Redfearn explains, “traveling from village to village to build relationships and trust, and figure out where exactly to relocate”.

While the reception to the prospective refugees in Bougainville is “mixed,” some profound instances of generosity really stand out.

At one meeting captured in the film, a local Bougainville landowner stands up and tells the young islanders: “Your story has moved me to  tears. I want to give you some land.”

The young men built some houses and started growing crops. They are, still today, figuring out where and how exactly the rest of the 1000-plus Carteret Islanders will migrate their community and culture to Bougainville.

Heartbreaking view
“It’s poignant. It’s heartbreaking,” says Disney. “Because these people will never go back to their community. Their entire civilization has been uprooted, through no fault of their own. But they conquer it with such grace.”

As the Oscars approach, the filmmakers are hoping to harness their Academy-driven buzz for good and are asking supporters and fans to use their Oscar parties to raise money for a Carteret Islanders relocation programme. All donations will go directly to the construction of new homes.

“These communities bear the brunt of climate change,” Redfearn says, “even though they’ve done next to nothing to contribute to it. They have a right to survive, and a right to a home.”

Watch the Sun Come Up trailer
Other docos shortlisted for the Oscars
How Sun Come Up in the Oscars
Cafe Pacific

Charteret Islands map

The Carteret Islands. Source: Google Maps


  1. Coralia, 28. February 2011, 12:59

    Heads up to the Media for taking Climate Change issues to this level…the Oscars…this is amazing! Its also a brilliant way to get climate change out there to a totally different set of audience….new mindset…probably a new approach to tackling the issue will spring up….and more empathy rather then sympathy derived from this……I actually have a lot of optimism in Hollywood stars doing something about it compared to politicians who have been doing nothing more then talking about it all these years….we’re so totally over their senseless negotiations!

  2. J.Doherty, 12. January 2012, 5:45

    While the Earth has always endured natural climate change variability, we are now facing the possibility of irreversible climate change in the near future. The increase of greenhouse gases in the Earth?s atmosphere from industrial processes has enhanced the natural greenhouse effect. This in turn has accentuated the greenhouse ?trap? effect, causing greenhouse gases to form a blanket around the Earth, inhibiting the sun?s heat from leaving the outer atmosphere. This increase of greenhouse gases is causing an additional warming of the Earth?s surface and atmosphere. A direct consequence of this is sea-level rise expansion, which is primarily due to the thermal expansion of oceans (water expands when heated), inducing the melting of ice sheets as global surface temperature increases.
    Forecasts for climate change by the 2,000 scientists on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) project a rise in the global average surface temperature by 1.4 to 5.8°C from 1990 to 2100. This will result in a global mean sea level rise by an average of 5 mm per year over the next 100 years. Consequently, human-induced climate change will have ?deleterious effects? on ecosystems, socio-economic systems and human welfare.At the moment, especially high risks associated with the rise of the oceans are having a particular impact on the two archipelagic states of Western Polynesia: Tuvalu and Kiribati. According to UN forecasts, they may be completely inundated by the rising waters of the Pacific by 2050.According to the vast majority of scientific investigations, warming waters and the melting of polar and high-elevation ice worldwide will steadily raise sea levels. This will likely drive people off islands first by spoiling the fresh groundwater, which will kill most land plants and leave no potable water for humans and their livestock. Low-lying island states like Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives are the most prominent nations threatened in this way.“The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. The best solution is continue to recognize deterritorialized states as a normal states in public international law. The case of Kiribati and other small island states is a particularly clear call to action for more secure countries to respond to the situations facing these ‘most vulnerable nations’, as climate change increasingly impacts upon their lives.