An interview with the 2019 COAL prize winners for a speculative futuristic short film about climate displacement.
The year is 2071. A white middle class family from the global north, somewhere in Europe, has been displaced by a climate-induced event. This could be an extreme event like a hurricane or flood, a slow onset event like sea-level rise or some combination of both, yet to be determined. There is a mass exodus from this European country, which is now uninhabitable, and families are migrating to countries in the global south to re-settle. The well-established migration routes that were common 50+ years ago (e.g. in 2020 and prior) are now inverted with the global north experiencing erratic and hostile climate impacts. Uganda is also contending with its own climate challenges. However, the country has maintained a very open-door refugee policy for decades allowing climate-displaced families from the global north to re-settle in its boundaries. The European family resettles in Uganda.
This is the premise of a speculative futuristic short film by Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-Skeaping, awarded the 2019 COAL prize for portraying the links between climate, disaster, and displacement. Lena and Teo presented the trailer of their short film during an interactive session at the 2019 Madrid COP conference, where they discussed the premise of the film with the audience. Following the screening, I was left with many questions and inquired with the filmmakers to gain further insight into their thought-provoking film.
Interview with Lena and Teo, the creators of the documentary short, “You never know. One day you too may be become a Refugee.”
Q: Tell me about the commentary that this film is trying to make.
The film is intended to highlight how important it is to extend generosity and love to those who have been displaced. In a future where climate change (even at 1.5 C degrees of warming) is anticipated to displace more people; more often; mobility will play an important role in helping people to adapt and continue to fulfill their aspirations. While most people in the next decade will move within their nation’s boundaries, some will have to cross borders such as those who hail from low-lying islands. If in the future the Global North is increasingly divided by walls and militarized border lines, we are going to continue to compound the victimhood (which our emissions have imposed) on those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
In our film we are working with queer theory to recast the migrant narrative with white middle class protagonists and to invert the North-South power dynamic. We do so as a way of highlighting how nations in the Global South like Uganda are actually leading the way in the implementation of liberal refugee policies, have healthier cultures of migration, and presently host more refugees than nations in the Global North.
The recasting of the migrant narrative has been devised to draw attention to the vulnerability of those in the Global North who do not currently consider themselves vulnerable to climate change, how migration has been negatively portrayed, and how movement could be better facilitated. The film is not intended to scare people, but to encourage viewers to explore how migration could be made more bearable and also to see migration as an adaptation strategy. It is also intended to encourage viewers to extend greater empathy to those (predominantly black and brown people from the Global South) who have no choice but to migrate by bringing the issue closer to home. We will do this by showing how our fictional family, unwelcomed by neighboring countries in the Global North, is hosted with generosity and compassion in the Global South.
By inverting the North-South power dynamic and by portraying a future scenario in which nations in the Global South have been able to develop via carbon neutral development pathways following climate reparations to no growth economies, we wish to highlight what must be achieved through climate justice and how this act of remission could create a healthier global culture of kinship and fluid mobility.
Q : In your film, do you envision that the Global South (e.g. Uganda, or whichever country you focus on) has taken great measures over the past 50 years to increase adaptive capacity (which is why the displaced Europeans are heading there) or is the driver because they can’t stay where they are, and Uganda (or other Global South country) is accepting of climate-displaced persons? In other words, is the draw of Uganda that is it more resilient, that it welcomes displaced persons, or some combination of both?
And if the draw is adaptive capacity – what did the Global South do effectively in bolstering adaptive capacity (e.g. indigenous knowledge, community adaptation, etc.)? Conversely, did the north follow business-as-usual until collapse?
A: This is where our idea gets complicated and perhaps involves a little bit of world warping and scenarios thinking. We are still working on this but here is what we have got so far:
The Global North and the Global South are not just places in our film but two very different future scenarios which our family travel between. The Global North represents a worst case 3-6°C of warming; business as usual; catastrophic future scenario full of techno fixes, authoritarian governance, and disastrous events. The Global South represents an aspirational ≤1.5 degrees of warming future scenario that was made possible by Climate Justice and ambitious NDC’s in which global equality is balanced.
Our fictional families passage from the North to the South, from the bad scenario to the good, will be determined by the decisions that a group of negotiators (who we will also portray) are making at COP26 in 2020. At the beginning of our film (as in reality) the climate talks are blocked by key nations from the Global North and so the future scenario in which the family are migrating in is disastrous. But as the film progresses and the climate talks led by negotiators from the Global South near consensus on NDC’s that limit warming to 1.5°C, improved mobility for climate displaced persons, and climate finance for Loss and Damage (Climate Justice), the family’s luck improves, coinciding with their approach to the Global South.
The ≤1.5°C Global South warming scenario has been achieved through a massive and rapid reduction of emissions and a re-distribution of wealth along with carbon neutral development pathways, and no growth economies. To achieve this scenario Global South nations have used indigenous knowledge and technologies in combination with renewable energy to adapt to 1.5°C impacts and to mitigate and capture their own emissions in transitioning to carbon neutrality. Not only have indigenous knowledge and technologies been used in the Global South, but they have also been applied in the Global North following South-North collaboration. The redistribution of wealth has been achieved through a combination of governments agreeing to finance Loss and Damage and through compensation derived via legal trails that have fined former Big Oil companies and their associates guilty of crimes against humanity and ecocide.
Q: There are still some elements that are yet to be defined in the final version of your film. After showing the film proposal to some audiences (for example at COP25) has it shaped the way you envision the film coming together? If so, how?
Yes, very much so. The film is still very much in the research phase and the opportunity to show the proposal film to an audience of experts at COP25 was invaluable. We had learned that we won the 2019 COAL price only a few days before COP25 – so the film proposal went from being a pie in the sky idea to a tangible project that needed to be completed by COP26 in November 2020! Having only just realised what a powerful network of people and organisations we had tapped into by winning the award and partially securing the funding for the film, we were quite literally thrown into the deep end! Here we were presenting the project in front of the Task Force on Displacement, UNFCCC negotiators, heads of UN organisations like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and International Organization for Migration (IOM) and many other talented researchers from the field of climate and displacement. Luckily, the generosity of these experts is boundless and what ensued can best be described as ‘research through conversation’. Starting with some basic questions such as: What might displace our family? In an ideal world what would be done better to support climate induced migrants? Should we use the term Climate Refugee? We started to construct the narrative of what will happen to our family and to explore some of the difficult conceptual and moral questions surrounding climate and migration. Then when the tables turned and we were asked questions by the experts, we were confronted with questions that we will have to grapple with as filmmakers. For example, whether or not audiences will be receptive to another doom and gloom film about climate change, and how do we intend to show the positive impacts of migration.
For us the most impactful aspect of COP25 was what we observed during the informal Loss and Damage negotiations. We were very shocked by how palpable the power dynamic (Structural racism…) between the Global North and the Global South was within the negotiations. A few key nations like the USA and Russia were using cold technical language to delay, obstruct, and reject meaningful progress on Loss and Damage, while the majority (those from the G77, AOSIS and The LDC Group) implored action through impassioned statements and proposals. Without having been in the privileged position of being able to attend those meetings and witness this power play, we would not have written negotiations into our film. As a result, the narrative would have been would have be far simpler and less representative of what is really delaying meaningful action on Climate Change. This is of course a lack of political will in the Global North, a fear of wealth redistribution, and losing geopolitical dominance. We very much hope that “art in the blue zone” – that is artists being able to access UNFCCC’s Conference Of the Parties as UN observers – will become a reality and that other artists will be able to undertake field work at COP as well as contribute to climate and cultural research that will bring forth the paradigm shift that needs to happen to make 1.5°C a reality.
Lena and Teo expect to premiere their film at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.