Film Fest Review: “Coskata-Coatue: A Refuge on the Edge”

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Photo by Cary Hazlegrove |

There is a moment halfway through “Coskata-Coatue: A Refuge on the Edge” where we watch from a bird’s-eye view as a Jeep bounces down the thin spit of sand separating Nantucket Harbor from the Atlantic Ocean, waves stretching towards the car, almost reaching it.

Suspenseful music builds in the background, and for a moment, you almost feel as if the ocean is about to seize the Jeep and drag it down into the depths.

It is a blindingly beautiful visual. The water is shockingly blue and clear, the sand almost white, the Jeep the only sign of human existence in the camera’s eye. But still, it’s hard not to worry, even if you aren’t concerned for the Jeep, about what will happen when the sea level rises.

Surely, this straw-thin barrier of sand cannot hold back the ocean forever. Surely, one day soon, the sea will pour into the harbor and never retreat. What then? The experts who narrate the film don’t know, and that uncertainty, that vague sense of fear, pervades the documentary.

This scene is a perfect encapsulation of “Coskata-Coatue”, directed by Nantucket’s Laura Cunningham, the owner and creative director of the local film company Yellow Productions.

“Coskata-Coatue”, which premiered Wednesday morning at the Nantucket Film Festival before the Austrian documentary Patrick and the Whale, is as beautiful as anything in a Hollywood nature documentary. But coupled with that beauty is a creeping dread.

The scientists and conservation experts from the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and the Trustees of Reservations, who co-manage the refuge, are not overly pessimistic. There is hope, and there are already many efforts underway to protect the refuge, including a series of artificial oyster reefs at the mouth of a salt marsh installed to slow erosion and collect sediment. But that hope is tempered by the fear that any efforts to preserve the refuge as it currently is may be doomed to at least partial failure.

The water is rising, and nothing Nantucket does can stop that. One day soon, access to the refuge may be cut off entirely. One day soon, the ocean may open a permanent channel to the Harbor. No one knows exactly what the consequences would be if that were to happen, but no one who speaks in the documentary wants to find out. If these anxieties are to be prevented from becoming reality, the documentary suggests that action must be swift.

It is perhaps not surprising that “Coskata-Coatue” conveys a sense of anxious urgency. It was commissioned by NCF and the Trustees, and at times, the narration feels more suited to an infomercial or fundraising campaign than a piece of art. But, mostly, the documentary transcends mere advertisement.

Even as you watch piping plovers and seals, flowering cactuses — who knew Nantucket was home to cactuses? — and waving eelgrass, you can’t stop thinking about what will happen to them next. The music is often just as tense and fearful when scoring a seal rolling on its back as when an expert warns of the dangers facing the refuge, and musical cues repeat unexpectedly, summoning images and worries from earlier in the documentary even when the content on the screen is seemingly benign.

In “Coskata-Coatue,” Cunningham has created a visually arresting piece of art, one that would command attention even if played silently, but it is the film’s half-subconscious anxiety that elevates it and makes it worth going out of your way to see.

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