This is really big stuff happening under our noses...right now
Chasing Ice – the film that earlier this year (on Earth Day as it happens) took incontrovertible evidence of climate change to the White House for a screening – is now available to own on DVD.
The running time for the feature film is 01:15:33. The extras run to an hour.
I mention this as, before I watched it, I had had a long conversation with my husband about the difficulty of taking the film's strong but really quite short message – that the world is warming and this is causing ice melt on a terrifying scale – and turning it into anything longer than 15 minutes, with preamble.
He maintains this is tricky, especially if you want to keep the viewer’s attention. And he is right. This is probably the single biggest challenge facing almost every environmentally-themed film. Cutting to the chase, the key message “here-are-the-facts-so-wake-up-and-do-something, anything!, whilst you still have the chance” is short and, for many people leading comfortable or still ignorant (of the facts) lives, unpalatable.
Chasing Ice tells the Boy’s Own story of photographer James Balog's obsession to capture real-time photographic evidence of the accelerating rate of receding icescapes, producing a metaphor my husband spotted instantly. Because in order to execute his masterplan of placing and leaving numerous cameras in the world's worst ice-melting spots, Balog had to ignore the damage he was doing to his own already damaged knee.
And so, just as we know we are wrecking our own air and our own planet and yet carry on regardless (presumably for some greater pay-off than staying alive) Balog, who is also the director of Chasing Ice, ignores the damage he is doing to his knee and own body in pursuit of his goal. He even undergoes extra surgery so he can get his knee fixed up enough to carry on trekking to remote glaciers, thus further damaging that joint.
In the film, the knee saga is portrayed as a kind of heroic dedication to the cause and is included, I suspect, to add human-scale drama and tension. But if I am really honest, I was more concerned about the melting glaciers than those risking life and limb to get to the remote camera spots that had been selected to allow the team to document the disappearance of the ice they were monitoring for a period of three years.
"This is really big stuff happening under our noses...right now." says Balog who managed, with his assistants, to place his adapted cameras in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana as part of what he called the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) project which filmed what was happening – the effects of climate change on the glaciers – in those icy wildernesses. The irony of a hovering helicopter alongside a voice-over detailing the accelerating rate of melt was not entirely lost on me and I am sure I will be reassured that international travelling with its inevitable carbon emissions is all part of spreading the good or bad word.
But in one touching scene, Balog describes witnessing what he referred to as the death of a glacier: "I had the sense of the glacier coming to an end, like an old decrepit man falling back into the Earth and dying."
And that soulful statement did make me feel as sad – as sad as he looked on camera when he said it.
The film also captured Balog's frustration when the first of the adapted cameras failed to work in the conditions they had been left in. It was the kind of reversal you can expect from a Hollywood blockbuster after its first story arc, but I'm not convinced it worked or has much impact on the viewer or the story – with another 40 minutes to go, you know they must have solved the problem.
By the time we reached the end of the film; travelling between the different camera locations via a number of climate change scientists who confirmed that Balog (who also directed the film) had succeeded where they themselves had failed and had also shown scientists everywhere how better to engage public concern and opinion, I was still feeling...well...short-changed.
It was dramatic being shown images of glaciers that appeared, with the time-lapse videos, to simply deflate, collapse and recede, but it also felt as if something was missing. I realised I had assumed, from the trailer the ice would be the star of this show and I felt short-changed on those images that would make me and anyone else who watched this film care enough to do something proactive about further raising the alarm.
As the credits rolled, my husband said he would have liked a little more climate change science. As he spoke, he flicked idly to the extras and there it was – the missing ingredient; so we sat and watched for another hour...
It is often tempting – especially after an hour-long film on a topic that is not going to leave you feeling uplifted – to skip the extras but in this case, I am suggesting that you don't. The film's original soundtrack song was also exceptionally good and who knew Scarlett Johansson could sing like that?
I don't know if Chasing Ice will change hearts and minds. The film opens with the statement "Films can change the world" and I hope that's right. I certainly know people will leave pop up cinemas, town-centre Picturehouses and their own living rooms determined to act and make a difference after seeing this film, but I also know any psychologist worth their salt will have a clever-sounding name for this effect and that, truth be told, it's not an effect that is guaranteed to last.
Most of us will probably call it good intentions – and then look back and wonder how we too got so badly waylaid by everyday life.
Meanwhile, those glaciers are melting. Fast.
You can lean more about seeing/screening this film, getting involved in the Chasing Ice Pledge and Petition and making a difference yourself on the Chasing Ice website.
Susan Clark is an editor and journalist. Follow her: @suzresurgence