Losing Alaska: A community checkmated by climate change

Review: Irish filmmaker Tom Burke's documentary is engrossing but a little bit shapeless

Film Title: Losing Alaska

Director: Tom Burke

Starring: No actors

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 83 min

Fri, Oct 4, 2019, 05:00


Enough dissembling has gone on about climate change to convince many in the temperate west that the effects are yet to register in significant fashion. Tom Burke’s worrying documentary should do something to dismantle that complacent notion.

The Irish filmmaker goes among the citizens of Newtok in Alaska to tease out a tale of sorrow and unease. That locale has gone through significant changes in recent years. Once permanently snowbound, it now reveals soil and grass during the warmer seasons and finds itself ever closer to the nearby Ningliq river. Fresh, running water is now in short supply. Wild storms hammer the shingles.

In very American fashion, a decision has been made to move the entire community nine miles upriver to less insecure ground. It seems Newtok would be the first US community to be driven from its home territory by the current wave of climate change.

Losing Alaska is frank in its acknowledgment that human beings are often their own worst enemies

Making promiscuous use of aerial footage, Losing Alaska offers worrying reportage on the day-to-day effects of such devastation. The consequences of living with no running water in lavatories is depicted with graphic unpleasantness.

Losing Alaska - Official Trailer

The wider psychological damage is emphasised with occasional references to a rise in suicide among young people. One citizen explains that, once a winter phenomenon, that tragedy now strikes as often in the long spring evenings.

Losing Alaska is frank in its acknowledgment that human beings are often their own worst enemies. The citizens of Newtok are struggling with nature and the authorities. That part of Alaska is a long way from Juneau and much farther from Washington, DC. But there are also fierce battles between warring factions within the community – some wish to stay, others wish to expedite the move. Traditional values compete with contemporary concerns.

That sounds like a lot to pack into a small space. Losing Alaska, though engrossing throughout, does come across as a wee bit shapeless. The personal testimonies are affecting.

Climate change is like playing chess and it has checkmated us,” someone says. A Halloween sequence emphasises everyday Americana among the Arctic tundra. The harsh landscapes are beautiful. But the film never quite finds a satisfactory arc. Nor does life, I guess. Maybe that’s part of the point.

Opens on October 4th