Film Review: “How to Kill a Cloud” Brings Rain to the UAE

16 May, 2022
Out­take from the doc­u­men­tary How to Kill a Cloud, direc­tor Tui­ja Halt­tunen (cour­tesy Wacky Tie Films).

 

How to Kill a Cloud, a doc­u­men­tary direct­ed by Tui­ja Halttunen
Wacky Tie Films 2021, 80 mins
VOD Netflix 

 

Farah Abdessamad

 

The Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates (UAE) gave Finnish sci­en­tist Han­nele Korho­nen three years and $1.5 mil­lion to bring rain over the desert. In How to Kill a Cloud, film­mak­er Tui­ja Halt­tunen chrono­log­i­cal­ly fol­lows Korhonen’s sci­en­tif­ic under­tak­ing, inter­ro­gat­ing the sup­posed neu­tral­i­ty of inno­va­tion, human hubris, and the inter­sec­tion of the cli­mate emer­gency with nation­al­ism — in a “sto­ry of chaos and dust.”

Korho­nen is research pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Cli­mate Research Pro­gram at the Finnish Mete­o­ro­log­i­cal Institute.

“Here’s a ques­tion, what if you could con­trol the chaos,” the film nar­ra­tor asks in a tempt­ing-yet-fore­bod­ing tone, engag­ing with the pri­mor­dial bipo­lar­i­ty of chaos and cos­mos. Is one sup­posed to ever win over the oth­er, or are these two world con­cepts des­tined to com­pete against each oth­er equal­ly and per­haps cre­ate some­thing new, one is left to won­der. “The ran­dom­ness of chaos is true equal­i­ty,” the voiceover con­tin­ues lat­er, urg­ing the view­er to pause on fun­da­men­tal and mul­ti­lay­ered issues of fair­ness, pre­de­ter­mi­na­tion, and redemption.

 

 

Faith and doubt per­me­ate the film. Korho­nen — a sci­en­tif­ic under­dog com­pared with the more estab­lished researchers in the field — and her team win a call for pro­pos­als to par­tic­i­pate in the UAE’s Rain Enhance­ment Pro­gram, a prude dystopi­an-inspired title mask­ing a ghast­ly real­i­ty. Accord­ing to the World Bank, the water table of the UAE has been declin­ing to around one meter year­ly, for the past 30 years. The UAE fur­ther is expect­ed to deplete its nat­ur­al fresh­wa­ter resources in the next two generations.

What Korho­nen and her team (which includes oth­er cre­ative titles, such as a “Cloud Appre­ci­a­tor” among its ranks) are devel­op­ing are a cloud-seed­ing mech­a­nism and an Arti­fi­cial-Intel­li­gence pow­ered emu­la­tor, a code to iden­ti­fy clouds most like­ly to gen­er­ate rain. In short, they scan the desert sky of the UAE to find rain-car­ry­ing clouds — nim­bo­stra­tus and cumu­lonim­bus. After “read­ing the sky,” as many indige­nous and ancient peo­ples would have nat­u­ral­ly done with­out such expen­sive equip­ment, they would rec­om­mend the spray­ing of aerosols (fine par­ti­cles of sil­ver iodide and dry ice) to change pre­cip­i­ta­tion, effec­tive­ly aug­ment­ing their chances to rain in larg­er amounts since most rain evap­o­rates before it reach­es ground lev­el. In oth­er words: cli­mate-engi­neer­ing, already in motion in the US and Australia.

Described as “an inter­na­tion­al research ini­tia­tive designed to stim­u­late and pro­mote sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment and the devel­op­ment of new tech­nol­o­gy,” the Rain Enhance­ment Pro­gram is sit­u­at­ed under the offi­cial patron­age of UAE offi­cials. It’s appar­ent dur­ing one of the ear­ly scenes when Korho­nen par­tic­i­pates in a project pre­sen­ta­tion in Vien­na, chaired by H.E. Hamad al Kaabi, Ambas­sador of the UAE to Aus­tria, and dur­ing the care­ful scenog­ra­phy of her fol­low­ing vis­its to Abu Dhabi at var­i­ous stages of the project. Dur­ing those vis­its, we see Korho­nen and oth­er sci­en­tists recy­cling UAE talk­ing points in their var­i­ous press encoun­ters, stress­ing words such as “inno­va­tion” and “water secu­ri­ty” to artic­u­late the objec­tives to which they would con­tribute, to help ampli­fy the UAE’s brand­ing efforts.

How to Kill a Cloud brings up ques­tions that aren’t ano­dyne — from the role of sci­en­tists as proxy demi­urges deployed by an author­i­tar­i­an state and region­al mil­i­tary pow­er, to the uncer­tain own­er­ship of clouds (nation­al, glob­al good?), and the loom­ing threat of cli­mate-relat­ed ter­ror­ism, which could unleash floods or droughts upon ded­i­cat­ed targets.

The film right­ly acknowl­edges the blur­ry ethics of the rain­mak­ing project, even going as far at sug­gest­ing a kind of pro­fan­i­ty towards nature, to what can be con­sid­ered sacred. We iden­ti­fy a glar­ing con­tra­dic­tion between the quest pur­sued by the sci­en­tists har­vest­ing pseu­do-holy water to feed arid lands, the cul­tur­al-reli­gious ref­er­ences of water in par­adise recalled in the Koran, and a late-stage cap­i­tal­ist waste and over­ex­ploita­tion, for instance in the lav­ish pools of the lux­u­ry hotels at which they stay and the ridicu­lous­ly small plas­tic water bot­tle from which Korho­nen quench­es her thirst. Water becomes a tacky, expand­able décor — an obscene dis­play of inco­her­ence that over­looks every­day responsibility.

To whom do clouds belong, and what changes when weath­er and sea­sons shift? At first, cloud-seed­ing may seem like an assur­ance of final­ly revers­ing cli­mate change, the one-and-all solu­tion to bring down climb­ing tem­per­a­tures in many parts of the world. The very tan­gi­ble impacts of this wors­en­ing phe­nom­e­non are, of course, known — from the recent dis­ap­pear­ance of Lake Sawa in Iraq, to the Gobi Desert sand and dust storms in Bei­jing, heat­waves in South Asia, and brave but nec­es­sary efforts such as the “Green Great Wall” of the Sahara Desert, which hopes to plant thou­sands of kilo­me­ters of trees to halt the expan­sion of sand dunes and desertification.

Finnish sci­en­tist Han­nele Korho­nen, in How to Kill a Cloud.

Korho­nen jus­ti­fies her lack of moral dilem­ma in the fol­low­ing terms: humans are already mod­i­fy­ing the atmos­phere through accel­er­at­ed car­bon emis­sions, so what? She isn’t doing any­thing more than what non-sci­en­tists are doing on their own, then. But what this means is that we reck­less­ly absolve our agency away from irre­versibly killing the plan­et. “I can sleep at night,” she says, dis­con­cert­ing­ly. In the spec­tral pres­ence of a red umbrel­la, danc­ing under the blows of the wind — it appears in Fin­land, and in lat­er scenes in the UAE — we want to project an unex­pungable pres­ence, an alert, a lin­ger­ing consciousness.

How to Kill a Cloud brings up ques­tions that aren’t ano­dyne — from the role of sci­en­tists as proxy demi­urges deployed by an author­i­tar­i­an state and region­al mil­i­tary pow­er, to the uncer­tain own­er­ship of clouds (nation­al, glob­al good?), and the loom­ing threat of cli­mate-relat­ed ter­ror­ism, which could unleash floods or droughts upon ded­i­cat­ed tar­gets. The lat­ter isn’t far-fetched giv­en that the US mil­i­tary approached this technology’s pos­si­ble appli­ca­tion, such as Oper­a­tion Sober Pop­eye dur­ing the Viet­nam War in the 1960s, to pro­long mon­soons and con­trol ene­my advances in adverse ter­rain, and per­haps also oper­at­ed by India. The thought of abuse is ini­tial­ly what drew me to watch the film, imme­di­ate­ly seized by its ter­ri­fy­ing poten­tial giv­en how water and its scarci­ty could become even more weaponized in our near future.

When a jour­nal­ist asked about the like­li­hood of mis­use dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in the film, one of the UAE offi­cials mere­ly responds that there are reg­u­la­tions — quite as if we all lived in a per­fect law-abid­ing world (and whose laws any­way, defend­ing which inter­ests?). The UAE has yet to rat­i­fy the 1978 Con­ven­tion on the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Mil­i­tary or Any Oth­er Hos­tile Use of Envi­ron­men­tal Mod­i­fi­ca­tion Tech­niques.

How to Kill a Cloud also brings lighter, cringe-wor­thy moments in Korhonen’s arrival to the UAE to defend and pro­mote the project. She’s a young white woman, con­scious that the role her native Fin­land allows her to occu­py vast­ly dif­fers from the tra­di­tion­al place of women in Arab soci­eties. This is quick­ly counter-bal­anced by a smart PR move: the pres­ence of Alya al Mazroui on the Rain Enhance­ment Pro­gram team.

Cryp­to-Ori­en­tal­ist lean­ings do poke through when the cam­era repeat­ed­ly pans on a mur­al of hijab-wear­ing women. Korho­nen men­tions the sharia law, with under­tones of a “us” and “them.” We hear recita­tions of the Koran; we see thawb-wear­ing men pour­ing cof­fee. The Gold­en Age of Islam and its sci­en­tif­ic achieve­ments is recalled before swift­ly shift­ing to cock­tail-drink­ing scenes of her social­iz­ing with var­i­ous oth­er (male) sci­en­tists. By show­ing Korho­nen enjoy­ing alco­holic drinks alone with men in a fan­cy hotel bar, we touch upon an uncom­fort­able truth: white priv­i­lege. Could some­one like Alya be in this posi­tion? Prob­a­bly not.

Halt­tunen wants to show Korho­nen as a pro­fes­sion­al sci­en­tist, but also as a woman in tech, nav­i­gat­ing heav­i­ly gen­dered-cod­ed norms and expec­ta­tions. In some ways, we do feel empa­thy for the sci­en­tist who was the first of her fam­i­ly to attend uni­ver­si­ty. Yet this attempt at human­iz­ing her sub­ject feels forced and shal­low, as it tends to min­i­mize pow­er dynam­ics (a white sci­en­tist expect­ed to “save” the UAE, with the full suite of gov­ern­ment-enabled expo­sure and respect) and triv­i­al­ize her wom­an­hood, such as when we watch her care­ful­ly pluck­ing her eye­brows in an expen­sive hotel room. While appear­ances mat­ter in a job that involves not only lift­ing tech­no­log­i­cal advance but also (if not, equal­ly) par­tak­ing to offi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tion func­tions, such cos­met­ic detail doesn’t add much to the sto­ry since the pro­tag­o­nist quick­ly becomes an insid­er, rather than some­one who strug­gles with an ambigu­ous performance.

Ben­jamín Labatut’s book When We Cease to Under­stand the World (2021) mas­ter­ful­ly shows how sci­en­tif­ic advances and dis­cov­ery can be inti­mate­ly inter­twined with mad­ness, per­son­al destruc­tion and polit­i­cal­ly-instru­men­tal­ized hav­oc. It’s vital to revis­it his­to­ry to debunk pos­i­tivist claims that all sci­ence is, by essence, good, and all future bears the promise of progress for humankind.

“The soci­ety needs to have moral deci­sion on where sci­en­tif­ic deci­sions will be applied,” Korho­nen says, per­haps pro­ject­ing her naïve if not delu­sion­al hopes for all regimes to be inclu­sive, demo­c­ra­t­ic, and account­able to their pop­u­la­tion and their aspi­ra­tions. If so, the world would indeed look quite different.

How to Kill a Cloud is fea­tured on Vice’s The Short List. The film won a Pre­mio Zon­ta Club award at the Locarno Inter­na­tion­al Film Fes­ti­val (2021), Best Film Tes­ti­mo­ny 2021 in the Jihla­va Inter­na­tion­al Doc­u­men­tary Film Fes­ti­val, and Best Direct­ing at the Inter­na­tion­al Sci­ence Film Fes­ti­val World of Knowl­edge (2021).

From chaos and dust, I found How to Kill a Cloud a sto­ry of opu­lent gold, and much dizzi­ness. It draws you into a world many will imme­di­ate­ly hate (pow­er, pres­tige) with actors who hold very lit­tle account­abil­i­ty over issues that could affect the entire planet.

Watch this ver­tig­i­nous doc­u­men­tary to engage with what it unveils and all that it leaves unanswered.