For most of Lulu DeBoer’s life, the Kiribati islands existed only in dreams and in the stories she heard from her mother. DeBoer, 24, was raised in Texas, almost 6,000 miles away from the tiny Pacific island nation where her mother was born. Growing up, Kiribati “was always a mystery,” she said. “It just sounded like this distant fairytale place where there’s magic and dolphins and clear oceans. It was always really fantastical and not quite real.”
Kiribati moved from DeBoer’s dreams into reality in the early 2000s, when she received pictures of coastal erosion from her relatives on the islands. As DeBoer learned about the threat sea-level rise poses to the islands, she decided to make it her life’s mission to visit the islands and film a documentary.
At the time, few people in DeBoer’s hometown believed in climate change. “I would get in these huge debates with my high school teachers over whether or not climate change existed,” she said. “I thought, ‘OK, there just has to be a movie.’”
DeBoer decided to make a personal documentary “to reach those people in my hometown who had politicized climate change so much that they were ignoring it.” She kept this goal in mind as she studied film and music at Stanford while simultaneously pitching story ideas and drafting proposals to potential funders.
Though the rising tides threaten to wash away her mother’s homeland, they have also motivated DeBoer to learn as much as she can about the culture before it’s too late, she says. After seven years of planning, researching, and fundraising, she was finally able to set foot on the islands for the first time last year.
“I was going back to this place that was so familiar but also so new,” she said. “Relearning the Kiribati culture is the responsibility that I have because Kiribati won’t be there in a little bit—but if no one makes a concerted effort [the culture] is just going to die out.”
On a personal level, DeBoer has found it difficult to establish and preserve her identity as an i-Kiribati American because there are so few i-Kiribati living in the States. The culture is primarily centered around a fishing- and harvesting-based subsistence lifestyle, so it’s hard to maintain these practices in an environment where they are not needed on a daily basis.
As sea-level rise encroaches on Kiribati and more residents consider migrating to other countries, DeBoer’s own experience leaves her worried that the i-Kiribati culture will gradually be lost.
“My American, British, and New Zealand cousins and I are living in that future—it’s a scary future, because it’s so hard to find a reason to keep speaking the language and keep practicing the culture when you’re so far away from it,” she explained.
When DeBoer arrived on Tarawa and Tabiteuea islands last year for her six-week filming trip, hundreds of family members welcomed DeBoer upon her arrival in Kiribati with open arms, feasts, and celebrations. “I met at least like 400 or 500 people,” she laughed. “It was funny—we went on a trip up and down the island and they just filled up a truck bed with like, 20 people, and were like, ‘All right, here’s the nuclear family!’”
Navigating this huge extended-family network is a major part of life on the islands, she explained. DeBoer believes these social networks will play a major role in how families ultimately adapt to the transformations climate change will bring. “Especially now that we’re facing this impending crisis [of sea-level rise], the idea of preparing the family for the future is becoming more and more real.”
As she began the process of learning the Kiribati way of life, DeBoer realized that no amount of studying could replace actively practicing the culture while living on the islands. A large part of life in Kiribati is learning how to be resourceful on remote, infertile islands, where food and money are scarce and families live day-to-day, she said.
“I lost, like, 12 pounds and it was exhausting,” she recalled. When she returned home, she said, “I really appreciated running water again and I appreciated why my mom sends so much money back [to Kiribati].”
DeBoer has recently returned to Tarawa to continue filming for the documentary, Millennium Island, which she plans to release in 2017. The film follows her journey to the islands, the process of learning her family history and culture, and her relatives’ attempts to prepare for an uncertain future. She hopes the film will depoliticize climate change, show that it is already affecting real people with a unique culture and way of life, and provide hope for the i-Kiribati people.
“My goal is to show the Kiribati people that adaptation is possible and that we have the resilience as a people to do this—but it’s going to be a lot of work to try and retain as much culture as we can.”