It’s a lot easier to picture the chaos of climate change when it’s already happened. Humans have never witnessed the kind of sea level rise that’s in store for us if we don’t start removing carbon from the atmosphere. We’ve seen massive storms, but we haven’t seen the frequency and intensity that is coming our way. Making clear the scientifically known but so-far unexperienced future is a vital step in grappling with what to do about it.
Short of a time machine, we should start by watching Los reyes del pueblo que no existe (Kings of Nowhere), a surreal new documentary from young Mexican filmmaker Betzabé García. She spent five years living in a small town in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, which, in 2009, suffered a cataclysmic inundation from the construction of the nearby Picachos Dam. We don’t see the dam in the film, or the political fight it ignited. Instead, García sits the viewer down among the holdouts, the three families who insisted on staying even after the water lapped up most of the settlement. The scenario sounds impossible, but it’s real, and the choices made by the villagers there offer stirring guidance on how to live when rising waters permanently submerge your home.
The choices differ. Spouses Jaime and Yoya happily upgrade from a handmade, rickety but dry house to a more spacious abode that was vacated in the mass exodus. For them, the disruption of the community was jarring, and removed most of their neighbors and friends, but opened new opportunities as well. At one point Jaime, the husband, jokes about going out into the night to lasso some ghosts. His wife asks how he could possibly do that, and he replies that he could become God for a moment. He’s not afraid to take control of his circumstances.
Elsewhere in the soggy pueblo, Pani and Paula maintain their tortillería, cranking out fresh ones daily for the surrounding hinterlands. The machine sputters and steams in the quiet air as they shoo away the donkey from licking up the dough. Miro’s family sweeps out the empty church and clips the hedges. They could let it grow wild. There’s no priest around to notice, or to hold services for that matter. But it’s something to do, and it repays a debt to God they accrued by escaping an armed ambush some months back.
About those armed bandits: A shroud of fear encircles this town, a fear that’s never directly addressed. Maybe, this being Sinaloa, it’s narcos having a shootout. Or the hungry and impoverished people who’ve been displaced, who left but grew desperate when they couldn’t build a new life. Or the shadowy elements who violently repressed the villagers who stood up and demanded just compensation (The leader of that grassroots protest movement was assassinated in a radio booth during a live interview; García’s short documentary about him is now available on The New York Times.)
When the electricity sputters and dies in a storm, when a loved one hasn’t yet returned from an errand, when gunshots crash through the night, a quiet terror flits across the faces of the residents. But they never discuss it. When the crack of a rifle punctures the laughter of a late-night gathering on Jaime’s porch, the friends at first ignore it, then brush it off. Sounds like fireworks.
This isn’t a triumphal story. It’s not a plucky band of outsiders, brought together by the calamity that destroys the old way of life. There’s real danger in the collapse of the community and the strength that comes in numbers. But neither is it the end of the world. The rising water level, just like rising seas, force adaptation. The survivors ride boats through main street now, gondola-style with a giant bamboo pole or with a humble wooden paddle. They still raise chickens and other livestock, just on higher ground than they used to. The link to climate change deepens given that the seemingly natural cause of the disaster—water—really results from manmade action—dam building. This village is no allegory; it’s a real community. But it captures the Anthropocene in a nutshell.
It also shows just how surreal these kinds of environmental dislocations can be. The film opens with a long steady shot mounted on a skiff as it crosses the basin, passes through a flooded house, and arrives at a streetlamp that pokes up through the water and somehow still lights up the darkness. There’s a white cow that got stranded on a spit of high land when the water rose higher than it was supposed to. Miro boats out there to bring it some fresh grass and tortillas. It’s not clear the cow will ever be able to leave. In each scene, the camera lingers until you forget you’re watching a movie and start feeling present in the dreamscape.
It’s hard to watch and not continually wonder why the townspeople keep on going. And that’s something they grapple with too. One villager wisely explains that life has no handholds, so you have to grab on where you can. For these folks, that’s churning out tortillas, or hacking down weeds in the plaza where nobody hangs out, or feeding the cow that can’t leave its accidental island. It plays like Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus filtered through Gabriel García Márquez: These seemingly pointless jungle routines are the only thing standing between them and the absurdity of their situation.
A lot more people may have to face that abyss before too long.
Los reyes del pueblo que no existe screened at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. and won the Global Audience Award at SXSW in Austin. The film is available on several digital platforms.