Chasing Ice – the very title appears to be a contradiction in terms. Ice is frozen water, frozen implies not moving, stuck in time and place. So how can you chase something that doesn’t move? This is the basic premise that veteran photographer James Balog and 28-year old film director, Jeff Orlowski set out to answer in the critically acclaimed documentary of the year, which previewed last night at the Curzon Soho in London. In the process, they have provided the most dramatic visual evidence of climate change in action captured to date.
Chasing Ice triumphs over audiences by virtue of its truly stunning cinematography. An iceberg equivalent in size to all of Lower Manhattan (except twice as tall as its tallest buildings) breaks away from Greenland’s Ilulissat glacier in the greatest such event ever captured on camera. The calving ice twists and turns in the water, rolling over to expose its underbelly, reminiscent of a whale breaching in the open ocean. Putting on a ballet performance to the sound of classical music, although there was no soundtrack, only the deep rumble of unimaginable natural forces, which deserved to have the volume cranked up to full. Edward Burlynsky’s images of industrial landscapes elicit the same uneasy response – a hypnotic attraction to the beauty in a scene of destruction and devastation. I found this unique footage to be eerily reminiscent of the 2011 tsunami in Japan in terms of the sheer scale of destruction, the similar displacement of huge volumes of seawater, and the unique footage captured. Although the impact on human populations is far more subtle, sea level rise due to climate change is a slow burner that could potentially displace more than 100 million people by the end of the century.
Undoubtedly, the greatest single success is Balog’s time-lapse photography, without which the movie would be meaningless. Time-lapse is a technique that speeds up a sequence of imperceptibly slow movements to give the impression of a continuous moving picture edited from footage captured over days, months and even years. Balog’s photo project, known as the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), comprises cameras set up in 27 remote sites from Greenland to Alaska that allow us to bear witness to the ice advancing ever so slightly in the depths of winter only to retreat in spectacular fashion. It’s hard to fathom how a technique that has been around for over a century has only now been applied to the movement of ice. Even other nature documentaries such as “The Private Life of Plants”, a series narrated by David Attenborough, used time-lapse as far back as 1995 when the connection between climate change and melting ice was already widely recognized. Nevertheless all credit to Balog for getting a team together to finally bring the project to life.
Ice is by its very nature cold, inhospitable and unforgiving. It was always going to be a massive challenge to illicit an emotional reaction from the public towards what are essentially massive blocks of ice sliding into the water. There were no cuddly polar bears or dancing penguins on show, neither were there Inuit fishing communities nor Sami reindeer herders. As a consequence, this heaped pressure on Balog’s personal story to deliver with emotional impact whilst at the same time not detracting from the main narrative of the melting ice. A task that is equally as tricky as hiking across a crevasse-strewn ice field and one in which I’m not convinced this movie succeeded in living up to. The determination of Balog to overcome technical glitches, his repeated knee operations and spurning of medical advice, the glimpses of family life, somehow didn’t come together to instill one coherent emotional response in the viewer. It could be argued that since this is a movie about chasing ice and climate change, we should not be distracted by a personal story. But in my opinion, both should blend seamlessly with each element reinforcing the other in order for the movie to succeed as a whole.
Chasing Ice is the 28 year old director’s first foray into a full-length feature and I can’t help but wonder why the task wasn’t left to a more seasoned veteran. Whilst the cinematography is breathtaking, the editing was found rather wanting. The clever use of scale to help the audience comprehend the epic nature of the ice-scapes shown on the screen and the before/after shots were certainly commendable. However, scientific facts and figures felt imposed on the viewer and there was a lack of inventiveness in sharing climate change data through the more cutting edge infographics and animation that audiences have come to expect today. Similarly, footage of Balog’s lecture tour didn’t manage to create the buzz of excitement that should have left cinema audiences wanting to replicate for themselves once they left the theatre. Climate change is not a light topic and despite the stunning imagery and my deep admiration for Balog, it was hard not to feel somewhat dejected about the future of the ice and our Planet as a whole.
It is important to draw a distinction between what this movie is trying to achieve and its role in the broader debate on the need for action on climate change. To my mind, the greatest success of this movie is to clearly show climate change in action. Seeing is believing after all. Climate change is often described as an abstract issue that people find difficult to identify with. The main pollutant (CO2) is invisible, the timescales involved are difficult to appreciate in our fast-paced world, and competing factors make the direct link between cause and effect difficult to prove. Chasing Ice has come as close as it is possible to overcoming such obstacles. Balog has provided us with the proverbial smoking gun on climate change that hundreds of the world’s greatest scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have sought long and hard to find. Rigorous peer-reviewed scientific data is an absolute necessity but translating that message into one that can be understood by Joe Bloggs on the street requires visual proof that we can all relate to easily. Many people will identify with James Balog’s steely determination (myself amongst them) to pursue and expose the truth about the rate of change to the great icescapes of the world. But as far as I’m concerned, Chasing Ice is not about to inspire the wider public to change their behaviour and actions to follow a more environmentally sustainable path – even though this is what we need. Behavioural change is notoriously difficult and I cannot think of a single other documentary movie that has had a global far-reaching impact on a social or environmental issue of the same scale as climate change. So my advice is not to expect or demand such a thing from this movie if you don’t want to be left disappointed.
Chasing Ice will no doubt be used by NGOs such as Greenpeace in future campaigns against oil exploration in the High Arctic. Balog and his Earth Vision Trust (EVT), which aims to provide the visual evidence that inspires a billion people to change their view of our impact on the natural environment, should deservedly achieve a higher profile. Crucially, EVT hopes to screen Chasing Ice to one million high school and college students – those who will make future decisions on, and will live with the consequences of climate change. One of the greatest challenges for the movie will be to move out of the art-house cinemas and into the mainstream theatres. The launch of a documentary on climate change is certainly timely with the Arctic summer ice shrinking to its lowest extent ever in 2012 and the threat of oil exploration in the Arctic greater than ever. American audiences are also likely to be more sympathetic to the storyline in light of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the extreme drought afflicting many states last summer. However, I would question the wisdom of a release date (currently showing in many US theatres and about to show in the UK) in the build up to the holiday season, when competition is fierce from Christmas features and Hollywood blockbusters such as Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Although perhaps this movie can reach a wider audience in the New Year on the basis that it succeeds in the smaller theatres now.
I believe that it will be Balog’s wider legacy that will have greatest impact in the longer term and that the Chasing Ice documentary is just one part of this. The best-case scenario to result from the movie is that it raises climate change back up the political agenda in the US. It should also be remembered that man-made climate change is still disputed by a surprisingly large proportion of the American populace. Civilian society, campaigners, and sympathetic lobbyists can use its visual evidence to shame politicians into taking action on climate change, such as by strengthening environmental legislation. A political solution is not the only approach nor is it necessarily the most effective, but perhaps it is the most realistic outcome that can be achieved by this documentary. Scientists have been criticized in the past for not communicating their story in a convincing fashion to the general public. Vested interests such as Big Oil have succeeded in spinning the argument and running rings around conventional scientific opinion in the minds of the public. We need more communicators of Balog’s ilk to sway public opinion towards believing in a cause and taking real action on climate change. Success is measured in terms of who tells not just the best story but also the most believable one. Photography is a powerful weapon in the hands of a skillful and visionary individual in search of the truth. James Balog is one such man.
Useful links –