MEAN Sea Level: An ironic film from the frontline of climate change

What does sea level rise mean to you and me?
What does sea level rise mean to you and me?
In October 2008, while attending an Asian regional workshop on moving images and changing climate in Tokyo, I had the chance to see Indian writer and film-maker Pradip Saha‘s latest film, MEAN Sea Level.

As I wrote at the time: “The few of us thus became the first outsiders to see the film which I found both deeply moving and very ironic. With minimal narration, he allows the local people to tell their own story. There’s only one expert who quickly explains just what is going on in this particularly weather-prone part of the world.”

The world’s rich are having a party, and millions living in poverty are the ones footing the bill. This is the premise of the film, which looks at the impact of climate change on the inhabitants of Ghoramara and Sagar islands in the the Sundarban delta region in the Bay of Bengal.

Almost 7,000 inhabitants have been forced to leave Ghoramara in the last 30 years, as the island has become half in size. The biggest island, Sagar which hosted refugees from other islands all these years is witnessing massive erosion now. 70,000 people in the 9 sea-facing islands are at the edge of losing land in next 15 years. For these people climate change is real.

As the sea level rises and takes with it homes and livelihoods in the delta, the villagers of Sagar are paying a hefty price for a problem that they did not create. Meanwhile, middle class India and the political elite are becoming aware of the problem of global warming, but prefer to look the other way.

I’m glad to note that the film is now being screened to various audiences and making ripples. By showing people – including those still not convinced about climate change – what sea level rise is already doing to poor people, the film is stretching the limits of debate and focusing attention on the need to act, not just talk.

It’s also creating ripples in environmental and/or human rights activist circles where all too often, passionate discussions don’t go very far beyond the rhetoric to bring in the real world voices and testimonies. Pradip’s film accomplishes this with authenticity and empathy yet, mercifully, without the shrill and overdose of analysis found in activist-made films. It powerfully and elegantly tells one of the biggest stories of our times.

Pradip Saha
Pradip Saha
In November 2008, Pradip showed and talked about his film at a screening organised by SACREDMEDIACOW (SMC), an independent postgraduate collective on Indian media research and production (and much more) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Before it started, Pradip told his audience to ‘forget that this is a documentary about climate change’ and just watch.

As one member of his audience, Sophia Furber, later wrote: “The film’s approach to climate change is completely non-didactic. Mean Sea Level is no acronym-fest sermon or disaster story, but an intimate portrait of a way of life which is on the verge of going underwater.”

In his day job as editor of Down to Earth magazine, published from India with a global outlook, Pradip excels in wading through the (rapidly expanding) sea of jargon and acronyms surrounding many topics related to science, environment and development. In typical style, his recently started blog is named alphabet soup @ climate dinner.

Read Sophia Furber’s account of SOAS screening in London

The more Pradip shares his film, the more people who notice the irony that I experienced in Tokyo. A short review by the Campaign against Climate Change says: “There is a greater irony. These poor people got nothing out of the economy that created climate change, nor do they contribute to global warming. Mean Sea Level is a testimony of reckless political economy of our times. Climate change is real, and only a sign of our recklessness.”

Last heard, Pradip was planning to screen MEAN Sea Level on Sagar Island so that the story’s participants can see the film for themselves. The idea was to power the event entirely through renewable energy sources, such as solar power.

I hope he will soon place his film – or at least highlights/extracts – online on YouTube or another video sharing platform. This film is too important to be confined to film festivals and public screenings. Whether it would also be broadcast on television in India and elsewhere, we’ll just have to wait and see. I won’t hold my breath on that one…

Down to Earth: Is climate changing? Yes, say Sundarbans Islanders

International Herald Tribune, 10 April 2007: Living on the Edge: Indians watch their islands wash away

Look carefully...
Look carefully...

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “MEAN Sea Level: An ironic film from the frontline of climate change”

  1. Hi
    This comment is regarding the vanishing islands of the Indian Sunderbans.
    I have been researching into the subject for the past few months and have found to my horror that it is the callous attitude of the local port authorities (and not really global warming) that is responsible for this. In the past two decades, two islands (one of them inhabited) have vanished from from the map and at least 10,000 people lost their homes. I have written several news reports (published in The Times of India) and now, started a blog ( ) on the issue. I will be happy if you read the blog and let me know what you think about it.

  2. The Union ministry of environment and forests in India is reportedly preparing measures to protect Sunderbans, the largest mangrove block in the world. According to a report in Business Standard, short-term and long-term measures for protecting the ecology of Sunderbans would have to be taken. But do we have the funds to do it?


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