Climate Refugees: Newtok

Making its world premiere at DOC NYC on November 13, NEWTOK follows members of an Indigenous village in Alaska whose home is eroding due to melting permafrost, river erosion, and floods. Directed by filmmakers and photographers Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith, who spent close to 300 days living in the village of Newtok, the documentary chronicles the challenges this community faces as they try to relocate to stable ground. The film warns that Newtok is one of 37 villages similarly at risk because of climate change and sea level rise. We spoke with Burton and Smith from their homes in Seattle and Brooklyn about their approach to the story, the experience of living in Newtok, and how it affected their view of climate change.

Science & Film: In terms of your entry point into this story, was your interest initially in the village of Newtok or in the issue of climate change more generally?

Andrew Burton: We started researching this project in 2013, looking for a place that was being affected by climate change in real time, and the research led us to Newtok. I’ve gone back and looked up the PEW research statistics, and at the time the majority of Americans did not believe climate change was a big deal. So, we were specifically looking for a location where U.S. citizens were being affected by climate change in real time and that led us to Newtok. At the start we were looking for something representational, but we travelled to the village dozens and dozens of times, and the answer transformed into caring deeply about this community.

Michael Kirby Smith: What we set out to do was to tell a story in real time about the communities being impacted by climate change. A lot of the bigger climate change films were predictive in nature, and what we were hoping to do is to show you the human, emotional side of people living on the front lines.

S&F: How did you decide, from a journalistic perspective, what context to include in the film?

MKS: We set out to try and make an observationally-driven film. The more time we spent with the community and they became involved with the process of the storytelling, we felt like the story should be told from the people of Newtok as much as possible, rather than hearing from people outside of the village. It’s their story and they’re the ones living under the constant threat of storms, river erosion, and the flooding of the community.

AB: In terms of the scope of the project and relocating, it’s a massive, massive story. We felt this journalistic imperative to understand all the players. There are more than 40 state, federal, and nonprofit entities all interacting with Newtok, some making life there easier some making it much more difficult. We interviewed as many agencies as possible so that we could follow the story and keep track of what was going on, but like Michael said, the goal was always to tell a very personal, on-the-ground story of what was happening in the village. The number of interviews that we didn’t include is probably 30 plus.

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S&F: Did you encounter resistance from the community to this story being told?

AB: As a point of context, Newtok is a bit of a climate refugee media darling. Many media outlets have been there. Most of them only go for three or four days; we have watched many parachute journalists interview the same spokespeople for the community. At the beginning we were treated mostly the same way, but I think through the number of trips—we ultimately filmed on the ground for more than 270 days—so through that process genuine relationships were created with the subjects of the film. In total, we followed six or eight characters then decided to home in on three as the main characters. The relationships we built with the film’s subjects developed relatively organically given the amount of time we spent on the ground.

MKS: One of the things we came across in our reporting was this much longer story of Newtok’s history, how it was established in the early 50s, how there was a village called Keyaluvik prior to the establishment of Newtok. When you look at other communities that have been assimilated, a lot of that happened so long ago, but what was unique about Newtok’s story is the elders were the people living in sod houses in Keyaluvik; the leadership helping Newtok relocate is the same generation that was first required by the state to get inside the state school system. What people hadn’t talked about is how the culture itself has changed. Prior to Newtok’s establishment they were pretty much nomadic within seasonal camps. When we, as a team, started to show interest in learning more about that and diving into talking to the village council and better understanding the political situation, the community opened up in a way that was very unique, and we felt fortunate to be as intimately involved with the community as we were.

S&F: What was your crew like, given the amount of time you were on the ground?

MKS: It was Andrew and I until the very end of the film.

AB: Our first production trip was in 2015 and we didn’t have the finances to bring an additional person on until 2019, which was the year the village partially moved. That summer we lived in the village nonstop. We ultimately had six different people rotating [through]. Michael or I was always on the ground. There were four other camera operators, and we were all taking two-week shifts. The weeks when the village moved we had five of us total on the ground.

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S&F: In what ways did you feel the effects of climate change while living there?

AB: During that last summer we effectively became members of the community being affected just as much [as they were] by the erosion. We posted up in a few school rooms that weren’t being used. But as homes were being torn down, residents no longer had homes to live in and they were being moved into the school, and we were lowest on the pecking order, so we were getting re-shuffled around. As more and more homes were demolished and people didn’t have a place to live, everyone was scrambling to squeeze in where they could.

MKS: The story of Newtok is a slow-moving disaster. It’s been unfolding over years. You’re constantly under the threat. As an example, the fall is when storms come up from the Bering Sea, and each storm has the potential to destroy the community in one swoop. The town would flood. As the infrastructure was collapsing as the permafrost melts, all the buildings were sinking, and the buildings themselves have mold from years of water coming in and out.

You’re under this constant threat and for years the community has been struggling to get people to look at the situation of Newtok and bring aid and try to figure out what the future will be like. Spending a ton of time in the community and better understanding the seasons and subsistence lifestyle and how it co-exists with the environment, and how the environment has changed, you feel the impacts of that. It’s hard to be in the village. The community homes are falling apart. There are massive infrastructure problems.

S&F: Did moving there influence the way you think about the immediacy of climate change once you returned home? Did you look at the places you live any differently?

MKS: Both Andrew and I covered [Hurricane] Sandy extensively as photographers. A lot of communities do have the luxury of retreating from disaster in ways that communities like Newtok don’t. The infrastructure that the community relies on now, traditionally they haven’t had to rely on infrastructure in that way and now they’re locked into this place. I think about that a lot. This isn’t a second home on a beachfront environment. The village council lawyer [said something like,] unfortunately when we look at the future, we’re going to have to consider which communities are saved and which aren’t. That was in the back of our minds as we were making this film.

AB: It’s hard watching it happen in Newtok then coming home to Seattle where we have an annual smoke season in the West where the wildfires wallop the prettiest days of the year in August. Michael’s basement flooded already this fall from massive storms. I know at least two towns here in Washington State that are trying to relocate for similar issues. On the one hand, we have the comfort of living in major American cities, but it feels like the writing is clearly on the wall if you pay attention.

NEWTOK is written, directed, produced, and filmed by Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith. It is edited by Davis Coombe, with music by William Ryan Fritch. The film premieres in person at DOC NYC on November 13 and will be available through the festival’s online portal from November 14-28.

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