If you were to switch on the TV right now and find out that the shoreline around Manhattan was crumbling apart and being swallowed up by the Hudson river at such an alarming rate that residents were concerned the city would soon be lost to the murky depths, it would be headline news all around the world. Closer to home, if the same scenario played out somewhere like Cobh, Skerries, or Ballybunion it would be spoken about in the Dáil and politicians would be tripping over themselves to raise awareness and secure funding to help the people residing there.
Sadly, the inhabitants of Newtok, Alaska hold out little hope that their story will resonate in any such way. Nestled on a crest of permafrost at the northern edge of civilisation, a small community of around three hundred people is set to be the first American town lost to climate change.
Losing Alaska is a riveting documentary charting the plight of working class people who are so far off the grid that they don’t really matter to their political representatives. They struggle to hold back the relentless march of nature as drastic changes to weather patterns in recent years has caused the erosion of the very ground beneath their feet at a terrifying rate. Director Tom Burke is an Irish filmmaker specilaising in the documentary form. he frequently assumes the role of a shooting director. and his crew have documented what is happening there over the course of a number of years, spending time amongst a warm, tight-knit community of indigenous people who need help but don’t know where to turn to for it.
As harrowing as it is to witness the shoreline inch closer and closer to the homes of these people, it’s tougher still to see the effects it has on their mental well-being, as families struggle to cope with a problem literally too big for them to be able to solve on their own. It’s not only their property that’s under threat but their way of life, their traditions and cultural ideology, as they are faced with the choice of staying to fight or move south towards cities like Anchorage where they would have to adapt to the modern world.
The film does a great job of embedding you with the inhabitants and underscoring how important this town is as a symbol of a wider problem. It’s beautifully shot and scored to give a real sense of how remote and isolated the coastal region is, and also subtly show how damaging humans are to places like Newtok.
Losing Alaska serves as a stark warning for the threat we are facing here and now and a reminder of how quickly we need to act. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road because every step of the way the water is lapping at our heels.