The personal is political

As world leaders gather in Bonn for the 23rd annual “conference of the parties” (COP) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kirstin Innes watches Thank You For The Rain – for the immediate, personal impact of climate change.

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“Last season, we were saying, there is no rain. No rain no rain no rain. Now we are flooded. Everything is being contradicted. Planning, failures. Planning, failures.” 
– Kisilu Musya, in Thank You For The Rain

Climate change is an abstract idea to most of us in the West. We might note it’s getting wetter, or that summers are less sunny than they were when we were kids, but safe inside our houses, with everything we need more or less at the touch of a button, we can shut it out at the end of a day.  It’s something Norwegian filmmaker Julia Dahr, director of Thank You For The Rain, was aware of in 2010 when, aged 23, she decided to make a film showing the effects of climate change on humans.

“I realised that the public debate on climate change was centred on sad polar bears on shrinking ice floes, or numbers and infographics…. I felt there was a need to direct attention to those who have done the least to cause climate change, but who feel the impacts more than anyone; small-time farmers in the Global South. Due to climate change, farmers across the globe are facing challenges such as extreme drought, flood and storms, all of which are affecting their livelihoods.”
– Julia Dahr, in a 2015 piece for Al Jazeera

On the last day of her research trip to Kenya, Julia met Kisilu and Christine Musya, farmers with seven children, who are struggling to survive in a newly-hostile and unpredictable climate – the droughts are longer and more intense, and when the rains do come, they break roofs and flood the hard-earned crops away. Rather than going off with the other men to look for work to supplement the family’s income, Kisilu spends his time trying to motivate people in his village, and neighbouring communities, to plant trees and work on long-term sustainable farming methods to combat climate change. He agrees to take part in the documentary on one condition – that he be allowed to film himself.

The daily emotional impact of climate change 

Through Kisliu’s lens, we see the daily domestic impact of global warming; the problem at micro-level. We feel the emotional impact. Endearingly positive and resilient, Kisilu puts his all into cheerleading local communities and farmers into planting trees, thinking long term. Christine, who also provides video diaries, muses on the nature of devotion, and the difficulties inherent in loving an optimist (particularly when that optimist’s good works are leaving her with a near-unbearable workload on the farm). But she, too, is an astonishingly resilient spirit, rallying the neighbours to laughter in the wake of devastation by that first heavy rain. 

The main roadblock Kisilu’s progressive farm schools face is indifference from other villagers, who have to put their own immediate interests before that of a larger abstract problem; when, five years after filming began, Julia and Kisilu eventually travel to COP21 in Paris, we see the same issue on a global scale. The sleek, suit-clad Western politicians whose lives are not directly affected by climate change are all of us in the Western world writ large.

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Kisilu bids farewell to Christine and his two youngest children as he heads off to COP21

Kisilu cannot shrug off climate change, cannot just buy a better waterproof coat or stick on some more sunblock. When he visits Norway for the first time, he notes that “humans are forced to electrify their houses in order to survive,” which may seem amusing to us, but when given sober thought proves Julia’s statement that the communities who have done the least to cause climate change are suffering its impact the most. His own handheld camera lingers over the foreignness of huge, glowing supermarket refrigerators, packed with hundreds of plastic bottles of soda, their generators rumbling.

At the COP21 conference, Kisilu first finds fame; everyone wants to interview him and his panel discussions are warmly received. But this huge, well-lit, glitzy exhibition space, so antithetical to the simple brick and wood huts Kisilu and Christine have to mend every rainy season, is an empty promise.

Things begin to turn when Kisilu visits the Indian exhibition pavilion, with its neon-lit water feature. “Is that real water?” he asks “Or just an imitation?” When his companion assures him that yes, it’s real, he steps back and contemplates the waste; his promised land beginning to smell foul. His companion points to the Indian Minister for the Environment, on a loop on a TV screen, and tells him that that man has also made a statement saying that India should be allowed to continue using fossil fuels in order to allow it to develop to the level of Western countries. Slowly, he begins to realise that all the people he sees gathered here, all the pomp, is not going to reach an immediate solution; indeed may not come to any solution at all.

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Watching all that joy and innocent hope slowly evaporate in the face of cynical bureaucratic spin is chilling, even before we get a glimpse of Kisilu watching a pre-presidential Donald Trump on television.

“To say that global warming is the biggest problem affecting us is ridiculous,” says the current leader of the free world, who will not be attending COP23 this week. “It’ll get cooler, it’ll get warmer – it’s called weather.”

"It's called weather"

On the surface, Kisilu’s attitude to COP21 may seem sweetly naïve, from his fish-out-of-water awe at his surroundings to his excitement at buying a cheap suit for the conference from a market stall and realising it says “Paris” on it. That this small-scale farmer from a tiny village thought he would come to the United Nations conference and help create an historic agreement is an easily patronisable sentiment.

But Kisilu is no child; he’s a man with a finely-honed sense of morality and duty, who simply expects others to behave with the same essential goodness. A clearly loving father who is always laughing with and affectionate to his children, he often uses the analogy of a “good parent” in his teaching – the bad parent hears their baby cry and shrugs it off as they are busy; the good parent knows the baby has been bitten and immediately removes the tick to stop further, worse sickness. The baby is the world, the tick is climate change. At the end of the conference, Kisilu looks beaten.

“I expect every leader to be as a parent,’ he says. “Very bad. Very bad.” And he shakes his head and sits in silence, horrified.

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However, Kisilu’s seemingly small actions have now had an overwhelmingly positive impact on his community, as well as some of the people who heard him talk in Paris.

As all eyes focus on the leaders at COP23 in Bonn this week, let’s not forget about our own complicity in this drama, however insignificant our possible impact might seem.


Brought to Scotland by Take One Action and Moving Docs

Thank You For The Rain screens in Aberdeen on Friday 17 November and in Inverness on Sunday 26 November.


Article by Kirstin Innes for Film & Campaign on behalf of Moving Docs

Photos by Julie Lillesæter. ©2017 Banyak Films & Differ Media

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Thank You For The Rain - Moving Docs

Over the last four years Kisilu has used his camera to capture the impacts of extreme weather on his family and village in Kenya. Travelling to Paris to present his footage to delegates at the UN Climate Talks, Kisilu finds himself on the biggest political journey of his life.