Solastalgia in 'Guardians Of Ua Huka'
Updated: Feb 2
As the only documentary short film in Cornwall Film Festival's International Short Film programme for 2020, Guardians of Ua Huka (Ben Cherry, UK) delves into the enchantingly beautiful natural world of Ua Huka island in the French Polynesia. From the opening shot, Ua Huka makes clear its’ preoccupation with the natural world and from here onwards you could be forgiven for perceiving this film solely as a tribute to the stunning landscape and cherished creatures that inhabit this home. However, it’s simply not possible to watch this film with little regard for its’ context – specifically that of our current extreme climate crisis. In this way, the film takes on an undercurrent of urgency that tinges narrator Tuhuna’s total appreciation for his homeland.
Whilst watching this film, I was reminded of a relatively recent theory in climate change called ‘solastalgia’. The terms’ creator, Glenn Albrecht, describes this notion as simply ‘the lived experience of distressing, negative climate change’ (Albrecht, Earth Emotions, 2019). Solastalgia is the word you can use to describe how you feel when you notice that the environment around you is changing and that it is out of your control. Now, surrounded by the evidence of what will be (and already are) the very real consequences of climate change, Ua Huka epitomises the notion of solastalgia. Whilst we may enjoy the images of sublime natural beauty and coastlines, there is underneath the knowledge that sea levels are rising, oceans are acidifying, and seemingly more and more species go extinct with every passing day. It is, as Tuhuna takes the time to thank aloud, first the land, then the sea and finally the birds that we as a Western audience here in Cornwall are reminded that we are also reliant upon our oceans and wildlife. We too should protect these. The measures which the citizens take to ensure this protection are humbling, but ultimately futile. We know that as a remote island, these people are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and will undoubtedly feel the impacts before we do. Yet I feel there is much we can learn from their approach to life, and even more from their desire to live in harmony with the natural world.
The cinematography is achingly beautiful cinematography and the use of drone footage masterful. These cut alongside shots of traditional tattoo designs on the bodies of the islanders, culturally significant sculptures and dances, and a wealth of information about the different bird populations makes Ua Huka a strong and intelligently made documentary. It is perhaps almost too brief, particularly for those who are enjoying exploring the presentation of this part of the world and would like to learn more. I appreciated also the restraint displayed upon the film’s score, instead allowing the viewer to escape further to Ua Huka by playing diegetic sounds. In one instance, what appears to be a whale song is played whilst we watch the island as light falls under sunset. The use of whales here further permeates the film with an awareness of the ancient and the natural. At times when Tuhuna is speaking, I noted that the film often dips to silence, thereby presenting through sound how the lives of the citizens are interweaved with the natural world.
Traditions upon the island have been taught through generations; be it taught by fathers or carried through tattoos. The islanders very identity could not exist without their unwavering belief that they were born to be guardians of Ua Huka. The solastalgia and yearning I felt as a viewer for a simpler and more treasured world is juxtaposed bitterly by the fact that for so many now, traditions are born through the internet and ancestral stories are disregarded rather than cultivated. Ua Huka reveals the vulnerability of these ecosystems and ways of life, whilst reminding us that as stewards of this Earth, we should be paying close attention to our own, and doing all we can to protect it.