‘Small Island Big Song’ is the most important music documentary you will watch this year

‘Small Island Big Song’ is the most important music documentary you will watch this year

Words by Tom Parker

We chat to Tim Cole, the director of the groundbreaking film.

With the events of 2020, the issue of climate change has been overshadowed by a phenomenon that’s equally reflective of society’s concerning trajectory.

Yet while COVID-19 could be considered a once-in-a-generation event, climate change is not. It’s bubbling away like a steaming cauldron nearing its climax and while public angst is boiling over, for policy makers, there are always larger matters at play…

Climate inaction receives much of its publicity through powerful advocates and delegates but it’s rare that you get to hear the story from the ground. By elevating the voices of those on the frontline of the crisis, music documentary Small Island Big Song is looking to change the narrative.

Filmed over three years on 16 Island nations across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Small Island Big Song is the brainchild of Australian filmmaker and music producer Tim Cole and Taiwanese film producer BaoBao Chen.

As part of the masterful and extraordinarily-comprehensive production, Cole and Chen met with more than 100 artists, elders, community groups and grassroots musicians, to record songs which spoke to their heritage and environment.

Piecing together recordings bit by bit, Cole and Chen took the songs across the ocean in a gradual process that saw artists from different islands and different environments add their language, their instruments, their unique influence to that particular song.

“We left our jobs and home in Alice Springs, packed our life away into the back of the ute, and with $5,000 between us, set off to meet artists identifying as the traditional custodians of Islands across the Pacific and Indian Oceans,” Cole says.

“Our goal was to record a song with them, a song they were proud to represent their island and heritage with, a song we could share across the ocean for other Islander artists to contribute too.

“It took us a year to get started – grant writing, crowdfunding and reaching out to artists to work with – then at one point before we were really ready, we just decided to start, and the rest would fall into place as we went.

“It was just the two of us on no real budget, so we could only carry what we could carry with no excess for luggage on flights. That’s why when you watch the film the microphones are on sticks or hanging from trees, we couldn’t afford to carry mic stands. But we did pay all the musicians.”

Why a song you might ask? Well, music in this form carries more significance than just the contemporary ideation of it these people engage in. Music holds the weight of heritage, place and expression, while also providing an ineffable experience for the listener or in this case, viewer.

“Songs are a great medium to carry ineffable feelings and knowledge in. The artists creating the film’s narrative, soundtrack, songline have all made a choice to keep their traditional culture alive though their artistic practice, they sing foremost in their the language of their ‘country’, they play the instruments of their heritage and whether they are aware of it or not they are the song-keepers, they carry an unbroken cultural lineage of their homeland and heritage,” Cole says.

“A cultural voice shaped over countless generations of surviving with and depending on nature in that one place, a voice which shares a sympathetic resonance to their homeland whether we can put it into words and meaning or not as the case probably is.

“It is through these songs composed by the traditional custodians, filmed in nature on their homelands that draw on their cultural lineage with extended interludes into nature and culture, that I hoped would reveal an ineffable feeling of nature itself. And without context, no interviews, no English voice-over, which would pull you out of the entrancement of the songs, languages of the land and natural sounds.”

Through Small Island Big Song, Cole and Chen didn’t set out to create a climate change documentary, rather their ambition was to nurture a better understanding of the Earth we call home today. To help people better understand its importance, its breadth and its fragility.

Small Island Big Song is an attempt to express human relationships to the Earth through song,” Cole continues. “I feel the facts on these issues are all out there, the scientists and journalists are playing a role in our society, the facts and the predictions are known and we have the ‘ways’ to respond. But still we don’t act with the resolve and urgency that nature and our future generations demand of us.

“We are clearly missing the ‘will’, that’s where I feel artists have a significant role to play now, we all make our decisions from within, our personal narratives and art can talk to these personal and societal narratives. We are music producers/filmmakers with a profile in the world music scene, so we asked ourselves what is the most powerful thing we could do for this issue with our resources – produce music for those on the frontline.”

Yet to be released in Australia, The Boite has organised an exclusive watch party and Q&A session of Small Island Big Song that will take place on Saturday November 14. Those who tune in will be the first Australians to have watched the groundbreaking documentary.

“At this stage the film is yet to be released in Australia, it has just finished a nine-week theatrical run across Japan, but this will be a rare opportunity to experience the film in Australia, so we are really grateful to The Boite for organising it,” Cole says.

“You’ll get to experience the film of course, [but] there will also be a livestreaming performance from one of the artists in the film, Charles Maimarosia from the ‘Are’are peoples of the Solomon Islands, and we will be there connecting virtually from our pad amongst the forest in Taiwan to introduce the film and follow up with a Q&A.”

Small Island Big Song can be viewed from now until Saturday November 28. Grab a ticket via The Boite website

Never miss a story. Sign up to Beat’s newsletter and you’ll be served fresh music, arts, food and culture stories three times a week.