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The formula behind ‘Chasing Ice’ and ‘The Island President’: visuals + heroes

2013 April 16


Tomorrow April 16, BERC, ERG, and CEGA will host a *free screening* of the documentary Chasing Ice in Sutardja Dai Hall auditorium (register here), and I highly recommend you go see it. This film inspires climate change action because of its use of visual evidence and a protagonist hero with whom you feel a personal connection.

The film follows photographer James Balog, who founded the Extreme Ice Survey, the most wide-ranging ground-based photographic study of glaciers ever conducted. National Geographic showcased this workin the June 2007 and June 2010 issues, and director Jeff Orlowski brought this story to the big screen. Beyond showing the startling footage of the disappearance of glaciers over just a couple of years, the movie explains the technical problems that Balog faced in setting up his cameras and the personal struggles he had climbing ice and snow even after multiple knee reconstruction surgeries. His perseverance is inspiring, however, and the visual evidence he presents is beautiful, haunting, and motivating.

At the most recent screening in Berkeley hosted by local company Mosaic, Mosaic’s co-founder Dan Rosen explained how he met director Orlowski at the Unreasonable Institute where they inspired each other to continue pursuing their dreams. Orlowski dreamed of bringing the story of the Extreme Ice Survey to the big screen, while Rosen dreamed of fighting climate change by creating a platform for any individual to invest in clean energy projects.

Chasing Ice’s use of visual evidence and a protagonist hero mimics another climate change movie I saw last year, The Island President. I reviewed that movie at length on my personal blog due to its deep impact on me and its amazing storytelling. That movie followed the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, leading his country’s fight against climate change. It showcased Nasheed’s personal struggles as a civil rights activist (being arrested, tortured, put in solitary confinement) and his true passion for saving his country from the threat of climate change and rising sea levels which will wipe out the country. It is summed up well in one of his quotes in the movie: “How can I promote democracy if there is no country to speak of?”

This level of personal storytelling is in great contrast to tactics used in An Inconvenient Truth, the most well-known climate change movie to date. That movie stumbled in its attempts to make Al Gore a personal hero (a cobbled attempt to make it personal by recounting his childhood on the farm and the tough loss of his mother to cigarettes and cancer), but instead focused on a comprehensive, yet accessible review of the data and science behind climate change. At the end of the movie, Gore called for action based on a moral crisis, but I simply wasn’t as inspired after I saw An Inconvenient Truth as when I saw Chasing Ice and The Island Presient. Gore understands what his previous slideshow lacked, and has recently altered its content to motivate audiences with both aspects of visual evidence and personal connections. It seems these tactics will become the gold standard for climate change movies, as the impacts of climate change begin to be seen and as filmmakers seek to more effectively motivate viewers to take  action against climate change.

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