Susan Crate visited Siberia with her daughter and a film crew in tow.
Thus began a seven-year journey that crisscrossed the globe and resulted in a concise yet urgent documentary on how climate change has affected communities from Siberia and the South Pacific to the Andes and Chesapeake Bay.
The Anthropologist follows George Mason University environmental anthropology professor Susan Crate and her daughter, Katie Yegorov-Crate, as they talk to primarily indigenous people about the effects of disappearing permafrost, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and other climate-related phenomena.
Released in 2015 by Ironbound Films, the 78-minute movie will be screened in multiple venues around Fairfax County throughout the next month in celebration of Earth Day on Apr. 22.
GMU will host a 4:00 p.m. screening of The Anthropologist on Apr. 17 at the Johnson Center Cinema as part of the office of sustainability’s Earth Week.
Crate helped organize the first Earth Day at GMU with English professor David Kuebrich in 2005.
The film will also screen at 4:00 p.m. on Apr. 23 at the Stacy C. Sherwood Center in Fairfax during the city’s 32nd annual Spotlight on the Arts Festival, and the Northern Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club will sponsor a 6:30 p.m. screening on May 16 at the Angelika Film Center in Merrifield’s Mosaic District.
Crate, who will be present for question-and-answer sessions at all three scheduled showings, hopes to see a continuation of the “very positive” response that the documentary has gotten from audiences since its world premiere on Nov. 13, 2015 at the documentary film festival Doc NYC.
“I’m hoping that it will do what it’s done in other places in terms of raising local awareness about climate change and helping people to see the importance of how we make decisions in our own lives,” Crate said.
Crate started working with indigenous communities in Siberia in the late 1980s, when it was part of the Soviet Union.
Since 1991, she has focused specifically on the Viliui Sakha, a Turkic-speaking group living on the Viliui River in the country’s northeastern region, since she studied their summer solstice festival for her master’s thesis in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ironbound Films first approached Crate about recording her field work for a documentary in 2008.
Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger had previously done a film called The Linguists that examined disappearing languages, and they were interested in following it up with a look at how communities are responding to climate change.
The filmmakers received Crate’s name from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which provides funding for her expeditions through its office of polar programs.
Crate says that she was initially hesitant about allowing a film crew to join her at the field site, since she worried that their presence would interfere with her research. However, she changed her mind after considering that a movie could raise more awareness about climate change, making the issue more accessible to general audiences.
“I realized that a lot of people did not get climate change just with the science shown to them,” Crate said. “They really needed something different to understand it, so I thought maybe this will contribute to a greater understanding by the public of climate change if they could actually see people who are being affected now.”
Crate helped the documentarians file a proposal with the NSF, and they eventually got a $50,000 grant to film her summer 2010 expedition to Sakha villages in Siberia.
As they watched Crate’s work with different communities, the filmmakers realized that there was another more personal angle that they could explore: the parallel mother-daughter relationships between Crate and her daughter, and famed 20th-century anthropologist Margaret Mead and her still-living daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson.
Katie Yegorov-Crate, who was 13 when filming on The Anthropologist started, has accompanied her mother on trips to Siberia since she was six months old. She also has family in the region, since that is where Crate met her father.
“The problems with climate change and the way that it’s affecting her family there really hit home for [Katie],” said Crate, who made sure that her daughter had some say in what would be included in the documentary. “[The filmmakers] thought this would be a great way to engage young people in the film and get their attention.”
After filming Crate’s work in Siberia, the documentary crew asked if they could accompany her to other regions where they could observe the effects of climate change on local communities.
She ultimately traveled to Kiribati, a nation composed of islands in the South Pacific that is being affected by rising sea levels, and the Andes in Peru, where local residents are observing the impact of melting glaciers.
Crate also visited coastal communities along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia to get a glimpse of how climate change is affecting people in the U.S.
While she describes the experience less as a surprise than a confirmation of her understanding of the effects that climate change is having on indigenous communities, Crate says that she was struck by people’s resilience and ability to adapt even as environmental challenges, such as diminishing water and other resources, substantially altered their daily lives.
Most of the people that Crate met over the course of the documentary rely on nature to make a living, either growing their own crops or herding animals for food. They had a range of reactions to their newfound circumstances and uncertain future, from apathy or defeatism to calls to action.
As an anthropologist, Crate sees the world’s hesitant response to climate change as the result of “western consumer societies” where humans have become disconnected from the natural world, making it difficult for people to truly grasp the consequences of climate change since they often do not directly see them.
“Our culture is very separated,” Crate said. “We buy everything from the store. We don’t grow our own food. We don’t have that understanding of that dependence, because we think we can just go to the store.”
Though she says that she does not want to get political, Crate argues that the U.S. has a particular responsibility to address climate change due to the amount of influence it wields on the world stage.
The current White House administration’s decision to roll back regulations designed to enforce compliance with the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, sends an unfortunate message to the rest of the world, Crate says.
Regardless of what the federal government does, though, taking action and building communities on local, regional, and state levels continue to be crucial to protecting the environment and fighting climate change, according to Crate, a Fairfax City resident who serves on the city’s environmental sustainability committee.
The City of Fairfax environmental sustainability committee advises the city council on policies and programs related to the environment, promoting resource conservation, self-sufficiency, and the use of alternative and renewable energy.
Crate hopes that the upcoming screenings of The Anthropologist will give Fairfax County residents a better understanding of climate change while also inspiring them to get involved in their communities.
“People are very moved by the human stories that [the documentary] shows,” Crate said. “It’s more like storytelling than trying to jam science down people’s throats or force people to think a certain way based on scientific fact. When you actually can see the effect that it’s having on people’s lives, I think it’s much more powerful.”
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