Please note: All photos in this post are from my personal collection and do not represent footage from Chasing Ice. They are merely there to illustrate the post and remind us of the landscapes we may one day lose forever.
Very rarely does a documentary film come along that manages to engage and entertain the audience whilst still presenting the facts and getting the argument across. Even though I am one of the people that go to see documentary films because I have a genuine interest in the subject matter and a desire to learn, I quite often find myself drifting off in the theatre. Although they have noble intentions, documentary filmmakers quite often get caught up in the subject they are documenting and have a habit of putting knowledgeable experts with no public speaking training in front of the camera to state statistics. Planeat is one such documentary film that managed to break the boundary between educating and entertaining, and now Chasing Ice has come along to join it on the podium.
In 2005, National Geographic sent acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog to the Arctic to capture images as part of an article about climate change. Initially a sceptic himself, when Balog saw the glaciers literally disappearing before his eyes, he realised that climate change is very real and progressing at an ever increasing rate. Determined to make a difference, Balog formed a team and set up The Extreme Ice Survey (EIS). Between them, they installed 25 cameras at four glacial areas around the globe that would take one photo every hour during the hours of daylight.
What I thought was going to be a stop-motion animation of the time-lapse photography with a few explanation shots of scientists and photographers setting up equipment in between is in fact a beautifully put together story. The filmmakers take you on the journey of Balog and his team right from the very start, when this famous photographer who started his career taking shots about hunting decided that he wanted to shoot something just as powerful, but that would be aesthetically more accepted by the general public. Through his work exploring the connection between humans and the natural world, he discovered his fascination with ice. Not only does ice create stunning pictures as a subject, it also allowed Balog to use his art as a tool to show the reality of our effect on the planet. No longer can we dismiss the retreat of the glaciers as something that is happening in someone else’s world, thousands of miles away. Chasing Ice brings the issue to you so you can’t escape it any longer.
I empathised with James when his untested photography equipment failed on the first attempt. After spending days hiking out to some of the most remote parts of the planet, braving extreme weather conditions to set up the delicate cameras and computers, he was back to square one. I don’t think there is a human being that would not have been as devastated as him when he returned months later to discover that there was a problem with the computer technology and he’d captured virtually no images. I quite often write in my blog about perseverance and not letting yourself be beaten when you face failure and things don’t go your way, and James Balog is the ultimate example of this. From seeing him stood by a glacier crying his heart out, broken computer chipboard in hand, instead of giving up on his mission he returns to the experts and asks what can be done to fix the problem. And make no mistake that it is a mission he is on, one that I doubt he will ever finish. As his eldest daughter Simone touchingly puts it in the film, it’s hard to watch someone you love chase something that they may never find. Balog had to wait years to see the results of EIS, but what he captured should be recognised as an important education tool that we desperately need to stop further destruction.
Balog’s enthusiasm for his cause is clearly addictive. Adam LeWinter, a design engineer and machinist who initially entered the project to help with the computer technology, soon became completely immersed in the world of glacier chasing. After catching an awe-inspiring shot of a glacier calving by chance, Balog decided it was worth camping out next to one of the world’s biggest glaciers, with a camera and waiting to see if the same thing happened again. Glacier calving is when large parts of the ice break free into the sea to become icebergs. The event is very rarely seen by humans, let alone captured on film. After his third knee surgery (he has since had a fourth), Balog was forced to temporarily admit defeat, and was unable to continue the field research himself. Cue LeWinter and an equally enthusiastic colleague who were helicoptered out to the glacier, where they were left with a tent and a few cameras and told to wait. Nothing happened for over two weeks, and then on the 17th day they got the shot they were after. And boy is it a shot. An area the size of Manhattan, only three times the height of the tallest buildings there, calved off the glacier and into the sea with a tremendous roar. When the glaciers calve, the ice doesn’t just slide off into the sea, either, it rises out of the water to twice the height of what it was before and then rolls around and around in the water. When you think of this happening to Manhattan, it is a scary thought. The fact that Balog was so convinced this would happen within the time span of less than a month, so much so that he left two of his people out there with expensive camera equipment, demonstrates the speed with which the glaciers are retreating. We know it’s happening, and yet we’re not really doing anything about it.
At the end of Chasing Ice, Balog talks about his motivation for making the film and continuing the project. In fifteen years time, when his daughters ask him why our generation did nothing about global warming, he wants to be able to tell them that he did everything he knew how to. Although most of us can only dream of making such a momentous change to human knowledge and perception as James Balog has, we shouldn’t let ourselves believe that we can’t make any difference at all. If we all make small lifestyle changes now, they will all add up to a big difference in the future. According to the environmental group Greenpeace, eating 1kg of beef represents roughly the same greenhouse gas emissions as a flight of 100km per passenger. When the next generation ask you what you did about climate change, what will your answer be?
Please remember to support your local, independent cinemas and theatres. I watched Chasing Ice at Chapter, a fantastic venue here in Cardiff and also where my graduate short animation premiered (I love mentioning that at every opportunity).