What Wednesday night’s engaging, high-profile New York screening of “Chasing Ice” needed was more conflict.
Yes, Jeff Orlowski’s debut documentary will have plenty of competition throughout awards season, especially as it battles its way toward the Oscar podium. But I mean real argument, debate, confrontation. Because a breathtaking feature-length display of the effects of global warming is ultimately designed to change minds, and the one thing you can be pretty sure is going to be in short supply at a high-profile New York City awards-season screening is climate-change deniers.
So, as impressive as that insanely moving footage was to capture, the real challenge for the “Chasing Ice” filmmakers— Orlowski and his producers, National Geographic, Submarine Deluxe and the film’s main subject, photographer James Balog — is to get Fox fixture Sean Hannity, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the billionaire Koch Bros., and other likeminded climate-change doubters to sit as we did Wednesday night, watch the movie and debate the unprecedented visual evidence it presents. As it happens, many of them make an appearance in the film, and while the VIP guests at the Museum of Art & Design certainly have influence, the truth is that they don’t have the power to change minds on global warming the way Hannity does.
Balog, who bears a slight, unnerving resemblance to Michael Bay, eventually became fixated on ice after decades of photographing the natural world. That led to the Extreme Ice Survey and the idea of trying to document climate change in a concrete way, since Balog sees the problem not as one of economy or technology, but as one of perception. So he set out to document incontrovertible evidence of “the miracle and horror” of melting glaciers with a small team of engineers, climatologists, glaciologists and videographers (including Orlowski). They designed a plan to mount more than two dozen cameras in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana that would take photos of glaciers every hour for years, and Orlowski ended up turning the project into a documentary, as well.
After overcoming physical hardship, several knee surgeries and utter mechanical failure, Balog and his crew finally got the footage that they were looking for between 2007 and 2010. What unfolds in Orlowski’s movie is a story of Balog’s obsession and the visual evidence he captures of the glaciers’ accelerating disintegration, which climaxes in a show-stopping set of time-lapse segments near the end of the film. Interspersed are breathtaking still photos and video segments of gigantic ice slabs breaking away — something called “calving” — in such immense chunks that they make the Fortress of Solitude look like a snowflake.
The film is undoubtedly emotional, and for those caught up in the looming tragedy of rising seas and temperatures, the scene of a giant block of ice cracking off and rolling over into the ocean is cause for tears. As Balog says in the film, “You can’t divorce civilization from nature — we totally depend on it.”
Environmental documentaries periodically win the Oscar — “The Cove” in 2009 and “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 — a designation that inevitably leads to greater exposure with audiences. Balog hopes that, while “Truth” endured substantial backlash because of Vice President Al Gore’s “baggage,” he and Orlowski will remain what social psychologists call “trusted messengers” — they are perceived not to have any political or other prejudice in telling this story and thus are less prone to knee-jerk audience reaction. Yet while awards recognition would certainly help the film, in a way the provocation of public debate with a few key people in the opposition would have even greater impact.
“We don’t want to just preach to the choir,” said Orlowski at the film’s afterparty at the restaurant Robert. The young filmmaker claims that after a screening for 350 students at a Utah high school, they asked the kids how many of their minds had been changed by the movie, and three quarters of the crowd raised their hands. Seeing this as a hopeful indicator, Orlowski says he’d like to film a screening and Q&A with an audience in a conservative stronghold such as Colorado Springs. And he and his team delivered DVD copies of the movie to every congressman and senator in Washington, hoping to engage as many as possible in their groundbreaking visual depiction of the melting glaciers.
“Chasing Ice” has already screened at dozens of festival screenings since the film’s world premiere at Sundance in January, and it’s won a number of audience awards, signaling the film’s populist impact. For Wednesday’s awards-season kick-off event, Cynthia Swartz’s Strategy PR engaged New York rainmaker Peggy Siegal to pull together a New York premiere with the right mix of potential activists, media members, Academy voters and famous faces, including Harry Belafonte and Judd Hirsch. “Chasing Ice” producers Jerry Aronson and Paula DuPre Pesmen were there, along with composer J. Ralph, executives and filmmakers from National Geographic, and Josh Braun, Dan Braun and David Koh from Submarine Deluxe.
“It’s a very important film,” said “Paradise Lost” filmmaker Joe Berlinger after attending the screening. “Everyone should see it.”
“People respond to the authenticity,” said Balog, whose wife spoke candidly both in the film and at the party about her fears for his safety in the wild. “This is the real shit.”
There also were whispers from several corners of the restaurant that a few of those in attendance had also been at a private dinner with President Obama a few months before during which the President acknowledged that climate change, while toxic to address during campaign season, could be a major push in a second term. It’s hard to say how true that is, but it’s a plausible approach to an issue Obama surely knows is extremely important to his supporters — and humanity as a whole. The filmmakers admit that they debated whether to release the film before the election and inject it into the campaign but ultimately decided that it would get politicized in unhelpful ways if they did.
“Art can come from collective necessity,” Balog said. “This film needed to happen right now because of historical necessity. There will be no end to this record. It’s now a forever project.”
As the movie nears its November 9 theatrical release, and the filmmakers and its publicity team continue to hold events and screenings to drum up box office and awards support for the film, the bigger goal is to reach out to those who just don’t buy it yet, convince them to watch the indisputable time-lapse evidence Balog and Orlowski collected and field whatever doubts and questions they still have. It’s the only way to move the conversation, and the possibility for collective action, forward.
So what do you say, Mr. Hannity? Will you and your friends give the film a look?