According to its director, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Nauru, An Island Adrift took four years to make. Salgado's claim must be an exaggeration though, as the documentary looks like it was shot and edited together in Microsoft Movie Studio over a weekend. Nauru is a fascinating place, and it's a shame to see its potential wasted.
The interior of Nauru has been completely mined out. Image by wazonthehill.
Nauru, to give a little back-story—something the movie altogether fails to do—is a small Pacific island about the size of Manhattan with a population of approximately seven thousand people. The country, which gained its independence from Australia in 1968, is the world’s smallest independent nation. For the last hundred years, Nauru’s economy has depended on its chief export: phosphate, a white powdery rock primarily used in fertilizer. In the 1990s, after the phosphate ran out, Nauru tried to turn itself into a tax haven and money laundering centre. But in 2001, after responding to pressure from the international community, Nauru tightened up its banking laws and most of the foreign money fled the island. Most recently, Australia established a detention centre on the island in 2001 for political refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern countries. But, after intense pressure from human rights organizations, both from within Australia and abroad, the centre was closed in late 2007. Today, Nauru is a mess. Its debt is twenty-seven times its GDP and unemployment hovers somewhere around 90%.
A Nauru License Plate. Image by lotto94024.
Although most of the film is spent examining the impact of phosphate mining on island, few details are ever provided. The information above isn’t special; most of it can be found on Nauru’s Wikipedia page. But for some reason, Nauru’s filmmakers decided that the film didn’t need any back-story. Nauru has been in the news lately, but it’s hardly a subject that everyone is intimately familiar with.
Before mining operations began, Nauru was an idyllic tropical Pacific island. Image by wazonthehill.
The film solely relies on interviews with the island’s inhabitants, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. It’s interesting to hear the Nauruans justify what they did to their island, but the interviews don’t provide much context and often make the Nauruans look dumber than they actually are. Part of the problem is that all of the interviews are conducted in English, which is clearly not the first language of many of the islands inhabitants. The result is that most of the interviewees respond with simplistic answers to the complex and rather loaded questions they’re being asked.
The cantilever ship loader that was used to load phosphate into transport ships. Image by wazonthehill.
The cinematography is rather poor; the shaky-cam style the directors employ is serviceable at best. The directors also seem to be in love with shots comparing the island’s beauty to what the inhabitants have done to it, and have packed as many of these shots into the film as possible. Ultimately, if you’re interested in Nauru check out This American Life’s fantastic program on the island and don’t bother to waste eighty minutes of your life on this film.
Nauru, an Island Adrift is part of Toronto's HotDocs documentary festival. Satellite image of the island is from Wikipedia.
Friday, May 08, 2009
By Stephen M.