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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Jennifer Redfearn--'Sun Come Up'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Editor’s Note: Sun Come Up, an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short Subject, will be screening Saturday, February 26, at 9:00 a.m., as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, and Sunday, February 27, at 2:15 p.m. at DocuDays NY at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Jennifer Redfearn, director/producer of Sun Come Up.

Synopsis: Sun Come Up follows the relocation of some of the world’s first environmental refugees, the Carteret Islanders – a community living on a remote island chain in the South Pacific Ocean. When rising seas threaten their survival, the islanders face a painful decision: they must leave their beloved land in search of a new place to call home.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Jennifer Redfearn: I studied environmental science in college and thought I would become a tropical ecologist. In my last year, I took a film and photography course and fell in love with it. From there I worked my way up the ranks as a PA, AP, field producer, and producer. After producing for NOVA, Discovery and others, I decided to try my hand at an independent project.


IDA: What inspired you to make Sun Come Up?

JR: In 2008 a close friend showed me a humanitarian alert; it was the story of the Carteret Islanders. At the time, I didn't realize climate change was forcing people from their land, and I was shocked to learn of their story. I have a background in environmental science and journalism, and I realized that if I hadn't heard of the issue, then probably a lot of other people hadn't either. It seemed like an incredibly important story to tell.
After researching the story, I learned that the Carteret Islanders were negotiating for a new home on Bougainville, an island recovering from a 10-year civil war that had started over a different environmental issue--mining. Many Bougainvilleans lost their land, their livelihood and their sense of security during the war. There are parallels between their history and the story of the Carteret Islanders. I thought a deeper story might exist about two communities, both uprooted due to environmental tragedies, uniting over a common purpose or understanding.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

JR: The greatest obstacle in making the film was the distance and inability to contact most of the islanders beforehand. The Carteret Islands are quite remote, and they don't have a way of communicating with the outside world, apart from a radio that connects them to Bougainville. The head of the Carteret's relocation program, Ursula Rakova, now lives on Bougainville and is working on the ground to facilitate the move through the islanders' own NGO, Tulele Peisa. I contacted her, and she helped us make plans to travel to the islands by boat once we arrived in the region.
The other obstacle was the lack of supplies and electricity on the Carteret Islands. We packed in almost everything we needed, including solar panels to charge the camera batteries. The camera's tape compartment jammed on Day 2 of the shoot, and I thought that was the end of the film! We were interviewing an island elder, Bernard Tunim, on Piul, one of six of the Carteret Islands. He encouraged us to be patient, and eventually we were able to open it and start rolling again.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

JR: We initially wanted to follow the islanders moving, but when the move was delayed and Ursula explained that a group of young people was going to Bougainville to build relationships and negotiate for new land, I realized that their search for land could be a much more interesting development to follow. It seemed like such a rare process, and a crucial one to their relocation, especially in a region of the world where land is so intimately tied to identity, community and history.
We didn't have the opportunity to pre-interview anyone, so not too much changed during the production process. The challenge was making quick decisions about who and what to follow when we arrived on the Carteret Islands and later in Bougainville.
In post, we had to narrow down our characters, and a couple of the people we followed didn't make it into the film. Also, we initially covered the civil war in more depth. We struggled a lot with how to cover it responsibly and in a way that didn't take the viewer out of the vérité narrative. Too often, places are defined by something horrific, and local communities struggle against a narrative that has defined them over and over in media. The war is important in the region, but people are also moving on. I think we eventually succeeded in finding a way to cover it and show its importance without over-dramatizing it.


IDA:  As you've screened Sun Come Up--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

JR: The reaction to the film has been very positive. I was so nervous during our premiere at Full Frame, but the audience was great--laughing in the right places, gasping in the right places--and a woman next to my producer cried. We've also been surprised and thrilled at our audience's generosity. People ask us all the time how they can help. In response, we've created an outreach campaign to educate communities about climate change and displacement and to give them tools to help. Now community groups can host a screening and a "houseraiser"--a fundraiser that will help pay for houses for the Carteret Islanders.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

JR: This is the most difficult question to answer, as so many docmakers and films inspire me. I had the privilege of working with incredible filmmakers on Sun Come Up--Tim Metzger, who has such an amazing eye for light and images, and who seamlessly and courageously blended into whatever was happening in the moment and captured it with respect; David Teague, who has an exceptional talent for finding characters, solid story structure and the emotional heart of films; and Abigail Disney and Tracie Holder, who supported us early on and helped us tease out the important themes in the story. I am in awe of Judith Helfand's dedication to the craft and the voice in her films; I aspire to some day make a film as powerful as War/Dance, by Andrea and Sean Fine; and I'm a huge Errol Morris fan. My tastes in documentaries are eclectic; if I weren't busy making them, I would watch documentaries every night of the week. I'm working with MediaStorm now, and I'm thrilled to be learning more about multimedia and how to integrate photojournalism into documentary narratives.

Sun Come Up will be screening July 30 through August 5, as part of the DocuWeeks Shorts Program, at the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Sun Come Up, click here.