An Inconvenient Truth was a significant documentary, not just for its prominence in the public debate over climate change, but also because it was the first documentary to win two Oscars in 2007, for Best Documentary and Best Original Song. Coming close on both counts but not quite repeating the achievement in 2013 was Chasing Ice, Jeff Orlowski’s film about the work of photographer James Balog.
I’m partial to the song that did win the Oscar, Adele’s “Skyfall”. It’s the most memorable one from the recent Bonds, but I found J. Ralph’s “Before My Time” (performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell) more memorable. The fact that it came at the end credits of Chasing Ice made a more meaningful connection to the movie, and the more languid pace allowed me to listen to it more attentively. This is one of the best closing credit sequences I’ve seen lately, documentary or no.
[Closing credits for Chasing Ice: “Before My Time” by J. Ralph Feat. Scarlett Johansson & Joshua Bell]
Chasing Ice is an elegant contribution to the body of documentaries concerned with enviromental degradation and global warming. It’s more finely focused than An Inconvenient Truth, a film which generated a lot of discussion and made its way strongly into the cultural consciousness. Although based on Al Gore’s relatively static slide presentation (an extended TED-like talk before the ubiquity of TED talks), it’s animated by Gore himself, drawing on his Southern preacher style and made more personable by the many family photographs and stories scattered through the film. It’s also driven by Gore’s argument about the nature of the changing planet that he supports with graphs and interviews and photographs. The pictures he shows are before and after shots of places with long-term visible climate effects, and it is this element of the visual material that Orlowski and Balog make use of so effectively in their film.
There are two issues with the use of photographs for this purpose: 1) What do they show us? How effective are they as evidence for the point being made about glacial transformation or rainfall? Sometimes their status as evidence is circular: we trust the photograph because of what the narrator is telling us, and we believe what the narrator is telling us because of the photographs. This is why all the other evidence Gore provides in his film is so important. 2) What kinds of photographs do you present in support of an environmental argument? Pristine wilderness or decay? The vivid beauty of Peter Dombrovskis‘s photographs of Tasmania seemed to have had a lot of influence around the Franklin River preservation in the 1980’s. But it’s also important rhetorically if not epistemologically to see other kinds of pictures too, like the toxic deserts of Richard Misrach.
James Balog’s use of photographs in Chasing Ice speaks to both these issues. His project with the photographs is to set up still cameras in various remote locations to record in time-lapse the movement of glaciers and icy landscapes. He does this within and across seasons and presents pictures that are strong demonstrations of the diminution of these formations. The answer is in the ice, he keeps saying, and even though this is true in the sense that ice core samples are a basic source of data for climatologists, the answer to how to see all of this is in the ice. Balog constructs with his time-lapses a convergence of moving and still images that have strong evidentiary and persuasive value on their own terms.
Of course one always needs a context for looking at images, but here the images have an extra resonance and meaning, not just as illustrations. His ice photography is framed not just as an art project but as a scientific one; like a lot of his photographs it’s a melding of the two. His TED talk from 2009 draws a lot of these ideas together and shows some of these timelapses (at 8’51”, 12′, 13’40”, 15’30” and video of a glacier calving at 16’12”).
[James Balog at TEDGlobal, 2009]
The second issue around environmental photography, whether to show beauty or degradation, (Ansel Adams or Robert Adams?) is also something that is accommodated by Balog’s approach. His subject is ice. Ice! I’m glad I saw this film on the big screen because the overwhelming grandness of those glaciers calving and crashing into the sea was magnificent and scary and sad and awe-inspiring all at once. It’s not as if we were in some smoky sulphur mine or grim and baking oil field; these locations were amazingly watchable.
Balog is careful to show some sense of scale in a few of his pictures, and having his process documented in turn by Orlowski is gripping in its own way. The sequence with the puny humans abseiling down an ice cavern getting closer and closer to its infinitely deep rushing waters equals the tension of any episode of The Walking Dead.
Balog’s attention to the ice and the emphasis on the ice survey project make for a film that is precise in the point that it makes about the environment. There are depictions of the hero photographer that exist as a standard trope in a lot of photographer movies both fictional and nonfictional (patient wife who suffers his absences, dogged insistence on trudging forth despite doctor’s orders); these I found a little distracting, but on the whole the film maintains its focus on the point it is making about the ice and the environment. The photos aren’t left to carry the entire weight of the argument though, there are a few scientist-authority-figures appearing, and in fact some well-made graphs as well. The movie recognises what it does best to contribute to this cause–give us some stunning images–and it wisely leaves the details of our own engagement and action to a couple of websites, for the Extreme Ice Survey and for the movie. Balog’s ice photographs are spectacular and this movie shows them on a bold scale. The project is something between still and moving images and takes its place in documentary form in a way that is logical and arresting.