One of Beautiful Islands‘s first shots is an aerial take of a strangely skinny stretch of land that seems to never end. This dental floss of an island is peopled with children who spend their time doing homework on canoes, swimming in the rain, eating freshly grated coconut, and playing with sea turtles. Too bad this South Pacific idyll, called Tuvalu, could soon go the way of Atlantis, for it is the first country on the planet to be sinking due to climate change (cue in the PowerPoint slide).
There is enough foreboding drama in this premise and its bucolic setting for the camera to sit there and let Tuvalu be Tuvalu. But Japanese documentarian Tomoko Kana is no Pedro Costa. Instead of allowing the uncanny simplicity of this place be her muse and brew through extensive contemplation (I could have watched Tuvalu just be for longer than Jeanne Dielman just cooks), Kana jumps to a different space altogether before you are able to say “buzzkill.”
We’re presented with—or assaulted by—all the hackneyed romanticism of Venice, Italy, with its gondolas, gondoliers, and gondoliers’ sons who dream of being gondoliers some day. Yes, climate change will ruin this paradise too, we infer. Too bad Las Vegas isn’t close to any body of water.
After lingering on the City of Canals and the mask-wearing folk dancing in rubber boots trying to avoid the flood, the film shifts its attention to Shishmaref, in Alaska. Its first image recalls the opening of Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export: a vast field of frozen ground with a little motorcycle crossing the horizon. But Beautiful Islands is too intent on putting explanatory, cringe-inducing intertitles on screen and reminding us of its green agenda to actually gaze at the beauty of its subject matter.
Documentaries on climate change can be as palatable as Deleuze for the uninitiated. Even though it admirably tries a barebones approach (no graphics, no music), this one keeps speaking for its spaces when the spaces can speak for themselves. Beautiful Islands teases us with delightful Weerasethakul-esque territory only to abruptly replace that promise of wonder with predictable, sterile documentary filmmaking. Like a lecturer who starts a presentation with such a great, spontaneous anecdote but then sticks to her stodgy bullet-point presentation.