We’ve seen many climate change documentaries in the past few years, some receiving more notice than others. It would be a lie to say at least one hasn’t made a difference, but there’s always room for more, especially when cataclysmic events like Hurricane Sandy are contributing to the need for conversation and action on the issue. Rather coincidentally, Chasing Ice, a film that has garnered acclaim since debuting at Sundance in January, was already set to release this month, unintentionally arriving on the heels of the massive storm with great relevance.
On Friday, as the film was opening in New York City, I talked with director Jeff Orlowski and subject James Balog, a photographer who founded the Extreme Ice Survey to record time-lapse footage of glacier recession and disappearance as proof of climate change. Obviously, we discussed Sandy. We also addressed the experiential nature of the film, how it compares to An Inconvenient Truth, and why Orlowski doesn’t actually see Chasing Ice as “a climate change film.”
Doc Channel Blog: Let’s start by talking about Sandy. You address the effect of climate change on natural disasters in the film, how it’s not exactly direct but is likely related. Understandably the timing of the film’s release is worth addressing, and I’d love to hear your response to the storm.
Jeff Orlowski: The consequence of climate change is extreme weather. It was something we were really conscious of as we were making the film, and we incorporated that footage into the movie itself. It’s rather poignant from a time perspective that the film is being released on the tails of Sandy. It’s a horrific event that’s happened. And ironic that it’s brought climate change back to a national conversation.
We’re just proud of the film, in getting out in theaters, and people can see the visual evidence and what’s going on in a way that you can’t debate or deny James’s photographs. That’s the message that we’re trying to share with the world.
James Balog: We can’t attribute any one storm to climate change, but there’s no question that there’s a pattern that has been predicted for many decades by specialists in this field. They’ve been pointing out the high probability of volatile, violent extreme weather events during an era of changing climate. We think that there’s a pretty good chance that the pattern of extreme events we’ve been seeing in recent years in North America, Europe and Asia are pointing towards the fact that we’re already in the middle of a period of changing climate. So, I think it’s interesting and certainly curious and ironic that the events in our film and what we’re seeing in the Arctic are all lining up.
JO: I think the steroid analogy that’s in the film is a really appropriate one. People ask, “Is Sandy the result of climate change?” That’s the wrong question. If you ask that question, you’re going to get a bad answer. It’s like asking, “Is one specific home run the result of steroid usage?” There’s no way to track it. It’s scientifically so difficult to prove that.
So, one of the statistics that’s in the film is that there has been a five-fold increase in natural disasters in North America in the last 30 years. That is completely in harmony and in unison with what the scientists have been predicting is the consequence of climate change. That’s the reality we’re entering. And these “once-in-a-lifetime” events — they’re calling Sandy “once in a lifetime” — we’re seeing them happening more and more frequently. That is the consequence of climate change.
JB: Final point on that: even Governor Cuomo pointed out that events that were thought to be once-in-a-hundred-year events are now happening every few years. That’s not just in this part of the world. It’s in other parts of the world, as well, including where we live in the Rocky Mountain West.
Right. It’s obviously not once in a lifetime, and that shows through your film. I watched it after Sandy, and a lot of the images of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath and what not, they just looked the same as what I was seeing on the news.
JO: When we put that footage in the film, we were trying to demonstrate what those consequences are and what they would be. I’m from Staten Island. I grew up there. And my grandmother’s home was devastated by Sandy. The flood water was three feet high inside the first floor of the house, and it’s completely ruined. These are real consequences. The estimate I just heard is that Sandy has caused New York alone $33 billion. Just for New York. That right there is a direct dollar amount that you can link to the consequences.
So, is this a good time for Chasing Ice to come out, or will people not need the extra argument? It makes me think of, say, a gun control documentary opening on the heels of a school shooting. People always say, “This isn’t the time to talk about it.” Especially in a political sense.
JO: We have a very short attention span in this society. And typically in the media. So, it unfortunately takes a wake up call for people to recognize the concerns. But this is an issue that’s a very, very long-term issue. It’s going to be effecting human civilization for centuries. If we don’t do anything about it now, the consequences will just be that much worse in the future.
JB: The other thing that can’t be overlooked here is that the source of big catastrophic events, of whatever type they are, get addressed if there is a financial, institutional constituency that is focused on altering behavior going forward. So, if you have airplanes flying into major buildings, and you happen to have a national defense establishment, then by all means you’re going to have the national defense establishment working very hard to make sure that airplanes don’t fly into big buildings again.
As it happens, we don’t have a national defense establishment that is concerned with climate change. We have a scientific establishment that is extremely and deeply aware of what’s going on with the effects of the environment, but those organizations, like NASA and NOAA, they’re not charged with being advocates for dealing with this. That’s not their job. Their job is to collect basic research.
So, when you have this thing floating past the public consciousness for days, weeks or months, there is nobody who’s there to pick up the baton and say, “Dammit all, we’re going to fix this right now.” I think — knock on wood — we’re going to see the Obama administration in the second term handling this with much more vigor and energy than they have previously.
But it also has to be said that in changing the automotive fuel standards, which are expected for cars sold in this country over the next 13 years, they have done the world a major, major service. And it’s under-appreciated by most Americans.
JO: Yeah, most people don’t even know about that.
Let’s go back to the film itself. How did you guys come together to make it?
JO: We met through a mutual friend. When James was getting the project started, I was just offering to shoot on the very first trip to Iceland. That’s where it all began. And James invited me to Greenland and then to Alaska. I kept following him and shooting video footage of everything that was going on with the project.
We weren’t planning on making a film at the beginning. The intention of the video that we were shooting was for archive purposes, for posterity and for promotional videos, things like that. It evolved over the course of a couple years into us realizing that we had the footage and the images to make a feature film out of it.
Was there a thought of this being a hands-on improvement over An Inconvenient Truth? That film mainly presents visualized data. You’re showing the real evidence. And I think it’s important to see people actually going out and doing this sort of adventurous investigating. We’re at a point where we all just find out stuff from our computers while sitting in our bedrooms. Doesn’t that hurt our ability to understand what’s going on with the world, our not really experiencing it?
JB: The experiential point is astute. Back in my teens, I started to realize that I was much more interested in experiential learning than I was in desk learning, book learning. I learned plenty from books, but it was the experience that really burned the understandings of lessons, methods, feeling for things into my brain and my body.
We didn’t necessarily think that in going out and engaging with climate change experientially that it would someday have this amazing result in terms of a film, edited from our experiential process. We just went out and did what we had to do, and the cameras were there and recording these remarkable events.So, it’s certainly true that for the audiences, for them to see that there’s actually people who’ve lived through these things, it is much more powerful than charts and graphs. There’s no question about it. And that seems to be what really captivates people about this film.
Jeff, was your intention with the film to carry the message on the issue, or was it first and foremost the story of a man who is working for a cause?
JO: I describe the film as being about James. I don’t refer to it as a climate change film. In fact, when we first started working on the film, I didn’t want it to be about climate change. We called it “The Photographer.” We made it much more about James’s past projects and on his family life and personal life. Because we wanted to stay away from An Inconvenient Truth and other climate change films that had just come out recently. It was really through feedback and through lots of test screenings that we had done and talking with the audiences, hearing that they were very curious about the ice and what was going on with the ice and more about the issue.
So, we ultimately shifted in the editing and framed it as being about — I really look at the film as being the story of the Extreme Ice Survey and everything it took to make this project happen and James’s history in working with the subject matter and how he got the idea for this project. That’s how I describe it.
JB: I also see it as very much an adventure film. And obviously about the artistic process, as well. There are a lot of different layers to it.
JO: About the artistic process, it was a real joy and pleasure when editing the film, having so much powerful photography available to us all the time. When we were calling it “The Photographer,” we were wanting to make it more about the insight into how James worked as a photographer and how he thinks about taking a picture or what goes into making a really powerful image. Even though we shifted away in the title, we tried to keep a lot of that content in there, the process that it takes to make something like this.
The Extreme Ice Survey is continuing. Has it grown since what we see in the film? Do you have cameras in the Southern hemisphere now?
JB: As we sit here today — we just counted this the other day —- we’ve got 34 cameras out at this moment at 16 different glaciers. Then we have repeat photography sites, which are places where we know exactly where we shot pictures in years past, and we revisit those sites every so often. Those sites are in France, Switzerland, British Columbia, Canada, and Bolivia. For the moment. We’re almost certainly going to be branching out into South America over the next 12 months. And quite possibly into Antarctica.
I’ve been to one glacier in Argentina, the Perito Moreno. Will you set up there? And has anyone attempted to do long time-lapses of the normal calving cycle before?
JB: There’s a South American glaciologist that has been doing that to some degree, I guess. We keep seeing little fragments of time-lapse on that glacier particularly popping up on YouTube. But we haven’t had the financial resources to really build a proper liaison with those glaciologists from Chile and Argentina. That’s one of the things I intend to be doing over the next few months. My first task is to find out what they’ve done already, and then we’ll carry on from that point forward.
And what’s next for you, Jeff?
JO: My team and I have a couple of films in the pipeline that we’ve started to develop, but really all the effort and all the energy has been going into promoting Chasing Ice and getting it out there as much as possible. Our whole team will be full time on this for another few months at least.
JB: And the Extreme Ice Survey will go on basically indefinitely at this point. When we started, we thought it would be a three-year project. At three years, we thought, okay, five years would be pretty good. And once we got to five years we couldn’t stop. The historical record was too important, too substantial, and our obligation to record these landscapes so that people of the future could remember what they look like, was too great.
Chasing Ice is now playing at Cinema Village in New York City. It will open this Friday in Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, Sag Harbor, NY and in Canada with more cities to follow through the month. Check the film’s schedule for more info.