Reviews Short Documentary

WANTOKS: Dance of Resilience in Melanesia (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Iara Lee

Running time: 20mins

Even though it remains in its earlier stages, climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet. Scientists believe that unless drastic action is taken in the current decade, this is only the beginning of a rapid descent, which will soon render large swathes of the Earth uninhabitable. Governments around the world believe this – no matter what they might lead their constituents to believe – because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be investing so heavily in strengthening their border fences.

In recent years, one of the most visible aspects of this mounting climate catastrophe has been the mass migration of people it has forced. A prolonged drought sowed the seeds of a civil war in Syria, for example, from which countless millions of refugees have fled. What they found on arriving at the ports of Europe was a hostile continent, which was determined to ignore its own culpability for both the environmental and political instability which had seen Syrian society disintegrate.

In the years since, rather than looking at how it might change its ways to prevent further such mass migration, the colonial Europe has spent its time further pulling up its drawbridge, or imprisoning and punishing those who arrive seeking safety. The reaction has been the same in the prison-camps of the US and Australia. Say what you like about the climate-deniers increasingly running things, but that seems like a tacit admission they are aware their way of life is going to create a great many more climate refugees in the coming era.

WANTOKS: Dance of Resilience in Melanesia is a searing dissection of this current state of affairs; walking a seemingly impossible tightrope in less than 20 minutes. Director Iara Lee has managed to piece together a short documentary here which somehow presents an effective analysis of the intersection between the politics of class, race, nation, and the environment; while presenting an impactful and emotive portrait of those collectively staring down the barrel of late capitalism’s gun.

The film largely centres around one specific event; the 2018 Melanesian Arts & Cultural Festival, which was hosted by the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, to celebrate the country’s 40th anniversary of independence. It is a truly beautiful event to behold – men and women of all shapes and sizes gather from the surrounding island states to engage in traditional music and dance, representing the rich cultural legacies of people who have lived largely at harmony with the natural world, stretching back thousands of years.

Importantly though, before we can drift into the kind of anthropological stupor that a viewer binging late-night BBC 4 documentaries after hitting the sherry might experience, we are hit with some cold, hard realities. On the neighbouring islands, several of which have sent delegations to the event, the struggle for self-determinism continues. Residents of West Papua, for instance, are still demonised as ‘criminals’ for their resistance of a violent Indonesian occupation.

The one short-coming of WANTOKS is that the choice to harbour these debates in a short does not allow for more intense examination. For example, some members of a delegation from West Papua at the cultural festival are disturbingly in denial about the persecution many of their fellow islanders face. This begs a more thorough examination, and in a feature film it is a theme that could really resonate with audiences wondering how so many working class people voted for Boris Johnson, or how any members of the US’ Latin community backed Donald Trump. This is a note for another film however; one I hope the Director might return to in a future project.

Moving on, the nearby residents of New Caledonia also remain under colonial rule. The island is a one of the many remaining fragments of the French empire – something that residents doubt will change however referendums on the island’s future go. That’s because the island, like most of Melanesia, is rich in natural resources. Quelle surprise.

Tying into this, many of the people we have seen so happily engaged in keeping their cultural traditions alive are now beset by the early ravages of climate change. We are bombarded with teary accounts from residents of Melanesian residents, who are steadily being forced from their ancestral homes in search of refuge – while a great many of them have contributed a grand total of zero to the world’s carbon footprint.

Meanwhile, the countries whose activities have already culminated in rising oceans are steadfast in their need to further plunder Melanesian resources to keep their toxic economic system afloat – not only destroying the dwindling land islanders have to live on, but exacerbating the rising sea levels – in the knowledge this will create a generation of climate refugees in the region. Most chillingly, the film confirms this by pointing to the fact that as more people are forced to look beyond their geographical homes for survival, most ‘developed’ governments are investing heavily in keeping newcomers off their patch.

This is by no means an exercise in hand-wringing however. While the situation is undeniably dire, and only liable to get worse in the coming years, WANTOKS avoids the potential pitfall a great many films might fall into here. We are not invited to simply pity or respect the figures depicted, or their practices; this is not about bemoaning the moral loss of a soon-to-be-extinct way of life, or about sanctifying some ‘noble savages’ who we could learn from to improve our own lives, in the grand Western tradition. As a seasoned activist filmmaker, Iara Lee knows better than that – and instead weaponises all of the factors listed to mobilise her audience.

Amid a charged context of captivating cultural performance, performers close out the piece by bellowing “We are not drowning, we are fighting!” It is a marvellous way to drive home the ultimate point of a film like this; we have to address climate change from beyond our economic bubble. The time for half-measures is long past; using fewer plastic cups or indulging in a Meat-Free Monday is to micturate into the face of a hurricane. Instead, we must work to break down the barriers preventing people across the world seeking refuge from a crisis crafted by our governments and corporations, and beyond that we must stand with those fighting for concrete systemic change on the front-line.

Overall grade: 4 stars

WANTOKS is an excellent example of activist filmmaking. It delivers a seamless introduction to a myriad of complex socio-political issues, framing what could be an alienating new experience for audiences by presenting its truths through interactions with warm, relatable human beings. Most importantly of all, though, it builds to a tonal crescendo which will leave its audience keen to do what they can to change the world, once they leave the safe confines of the cinema.

If you would like to know more, or take action to help the people of West Papua, please visit the WANTOKS segment of


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