When people hear about climate change, global warming, and, more specifically, the melting of glaciers, they might recognize an impending danger, but still, it seems a safe time and distance away. Photographer James Balog means to change that attitude. By using time-lapse photos of real melting glaciers and other imagery, the founder of the Extreme Ice Survey says, he hopes “to make climate change emotional beyond just numbers, charts, stats, and graphs that people don’t listen to.”
Now Balog is the subject of the engaging documentary Chasing Ice, Balog and director Jeff Orlowski were in Torino for the 15th annual Cinemambiente Film Festival in June. Their film opened the six-day event and won two awards, including one from the Turin Student Council, who called the film an “unforgettable masterpiece of immense impact.” Orlowski sat down with PopMatters to discuss the documentary.
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How did you first learn about James Balog?
It happened rather serendipitously. A mutual friend connected me to James at the start of the Extreme Ice Survey. My background is in still photography, so I knew about James through that and I was starting to get into video at the time. James did put up a little resistance. I was 23 years old at the time and he already had a videographer on the team. He didn’t really know why he had to bring another person along. But my friend was really trying to encourage him to take me along; I’m incredibly indebted to him for making this happen.
I worked as hard as I could that first trip in very cold, very harsh conditions. I was underprepared. I didn’t have the right clothing, but I worked really hard and James ended up inviting me to join him on a trip to Greenland and then another trip to Alaska. From the beginning, my goal was to shoot video, but also to help him install the cameras, to be an extra set of hands, to carry beer, carry equipment, do whatever I could to assist. I’d help him fix problems with the cameras. Then about a year and a half into the project, we realized that we had a lot of footage that was really strong. We had this archival footage and the time lapses were telling the story. At that point, we decided we could make a film.
You said that in 2008 that you were free to devote your time to the film. At that point did you look for a writer?
It wasn’t really until the spring of 2009 that I brought two producers onto the team and they connected me a writer and then the producer, Paula DuPré Presmen from The Cove. Our whole team is based in Boulder, Colorado. Actually didn’t want to work on another film at that time because she had founded a nonprofit and was still working on The Cove. We met in a coffee shop and I showed her a little trailer that I had put together. After seeing the footage, she was totally on board. So we got her and another producer, Jerry Aronson of The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, on the team.
Paula brought the writer Mark Monroe on and he spent the summer editing. We submitted it to Sundance that fall of 2009. [Though someone offered] to buy the film, we knew that it wasn’t ready and we didn’t end up getting into Sundance, so we decided to pass on the offer. I spent another two years editing, with another editor who did a complete overhaul of the story. Originally, it was more about James the photographer. At the beginning, I didn’t want it to be a climate change film, because there were a bunch of them already out there and I didn’t think we could make the real pivotal piece of work in that space. However, as we were showing people the rough cut, they were saying, “You know, we’re really interested in James’ story, but we want to know more about the ice.”
There is a mix between the personal and the larger story.
We did keep some of that personal story in there, enough so that we understand what’s going on with him, what’s significant to James. It started off in one direction and then we began cutting back on the personal story. Now, we have just that one section at the beginning that shows his past work, but structurally it made a complete shift… It seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time it wasn’t at all.
Did James have some financial backing that helped you get the film made?
He had backing through the Ice Survey. However, at the point when I kind of took over the film, I had to secure a lot of funding on my own. I was a first-time filmmaker and the economy was terrible. It was really, really difficult. Mostly friends and family got me going, so that I was able to fund the project… I am so grateful to my whole producing team, who had the patience to work with me and get to where we ended up. Definitely it took longer to edit the film than it might have with a non-first time filmmaker. But that was the only way this film could have been made. I think about it like that. That was part of the process that we had to go through.
In working with these experienced filmmakers, how true were you able to be to your own vision?
I think the most amazing thing about the team is that they were all very clearly supportive of me as the director. They’d help with ideas, thoughts, suggestions, and comments, but understood that ultimately, I was the one who had to change anything or represent anything in the film and it had to hold to my standards. So my practice with the team was to solicit feedback from everybody and try to get everyone’s thoughts on whether a certain section wasn’t working. We’d hear everyone’s ideas and sift through what made sense and what didn’t make sense, and try to find a solution around that. [One change is that] I’m a character in the film. Since I was one of the few people on a lot of these trips and I had to have my own voice in the film. I’m looking forward to my next film, because I feel like I have so much more knowledge on what to do, how to do it. I hope the next film will be easier.
Do you have an idea for that next film already?
I have a number of ideas for both documentaries and narrative films. But quite honestly, I’m focused for now on the distribution of this film. This is a film that I’m approaching from an artistic perspective and also, to some degree, the activist perspective: I want this message to be heard and the film to be seen. We’re trying to strategize about how to have the most effective distribution that we can.
Were you a mountain climber before you went along with James?
I had some background in climbing and rock climbing. I loved doing that and I knew the ropes and the outdoors very well, but I didn’t know ice climbing. I like the idea of being outdoors when you have control of the variables but a lot of high altitude stuff and a lot of ice stuff seems so fragile and so unpredictable. To James’ complete credit, he’s very cautious and concerned about safety. We were very well prepared for all our trips. We would spend a lot of time making sure the gear was working properly, that we knew how to use the gear, that everyone on the team knew how to use the gear. As they say, you are only as strong as the weakest link. If someone falls in a crevice, then you need somebody else to save him. We did a lot of training together and worked to make sure we were all comfortable in those environments. Now I love climbing and climbing along the glaciers is a phenomenal experience. I feel very privileged and honored to have been able to work on this project. It allowed a team to go to some very remote places that nobody ever goes to. We tried to capture that spirit, that essence of those landscapes and bring it back to civilization, so that people can see what those places on the planet are like.
Can you describe the experience of watching ice calving? For example, what is the sound like?
The sound is like a jet plane flying over your head. There are so many different types of calving events in terms of landscape, based on how close or how far away you are. For me, the most resonant calving that we saw is the first one in the film, the Store Glacier in Greenland, which is about five football fields long. We had no expectation that we were going to capture it and actually, we set the camera on this mode that it would record forever, and if you hit stop, it will save the last hour of footage or so. I had set the camera up and just had it rolling. We were installing our cameras, going back and forth to the helicopter. Then we realized it was happening and we were shocked. I caught it from the beginning and we had that entire event happening just as that piece was rolling over and starting to strip away. I just needed to decide when I was going to stop recording, how much we could save. That was by far the most exciting and the most exhilarating, because it was so unexpected and it was really that first experience.
What do you hope people will do upon seeing your film?
It’s a hard question to answer because we didn’t have the intention of making an activist film. We just wanted to tell an incredible story. The biggest problem, I think, for the United States is that only 36% of Americans know that climate change is happening and that it’s manmade. So you’re talking about only a third of the country recognizes that it’s an issue, and more don’t think that it’s happening or that don’t think it’s human-caused or they don’t think that it’s happening to the degree and the scale that we are observing. One of the most common types of feedback that we are getting from skeptics or people riding the fence is, “I never thought it was happening this quickly. And I get it now. I see what’s going on. I understand what’s going on because of the visual evidence.” More than anything else, we want the film to shift perception. We want people to recognize that this is a big issue. We need to do something about it and if we can shift that 36% and get that to a majority, that would be a huge accomplishment.
That said, the audience at a festival like this one is already aware.
We have been very cautious of this. We don’t want the film to just preach to the choir. We want the film to be very apolitical. This isn’t a political issue: it’s a shame that it’s been politicized. [Climate change] will affect every human being, whether they’re liberal or conservative, on the left or the right. It’s going to affect all future humanity. So we’re really trying to have this be part of the conversation that goes beyond politics and hope people can recognize its significance through the imagery.
At one point, James’ older daughter, Simone says, “It’s really hard to see someone you love chasing after something that might not even happen.” Is this where you found your title?
That is kind of where the title came from. The earlier version of the film had a lot more of Simone’s story in it, even some of the tension between her and her father. When she was growing up, her father was travelling a lot to do all of his various photo assignments. He would travel around the world to take photos of pandas, tigers or whatever he was working on. She grew up in kind of a difficult place where she wanted her dad there and he was always doing his work. More than any of the other projects, this ice project really hit a cultural momentum and energy. It had so much more resonance than some of the past projects. They all have similar themes, but this would come at a time with an issue that is really part of the global consciousness. Simone recognized the significance of this one. But she also understood that emotional struggle of loving her dad and seeing him chase after all these projects time after time after time. Now Simone is working in the environmental field and is very passionate about her work, so it’s sort of come full circle.
With all the work to be done on this issue, how does Chasing Ice leave its viewers feeling hopeful?
It’s a daunting subject matter, in a horrific and striking way. We referenced the calving events as both beautiful and horrible at the same time. The whole project was a constant mix of emotion. We were trying to capture the really important story, but tell it in a way that people can embrace and accept it. Ultimately, I look at James’ story as one of hope. Here’s a guy who had an idea and faced major obstacles. He used his skills and his tools to accomplish something that had never been done before, to communicate climate change in a human way. Ultimately, his story is this hopeful story of someone changing the world through his own personal passion. What we are often saying to audiences is, “We don’t have the answers to these questions. Since this is a huge problem, we all need to do our part.” Everybody who has worked on the film, whether it was a writer or a producer, or editor or designer, are coming with different skills and they can all contribute to something that is important and meaningful.
I’ve been challenging people without knowing what their skill set is by saying, “You can make a difference on this issue by contributing. You have to be creative and you have to figure out what you can do to make the difference in this world, whether it’s being an activist or contacting politicians or whether it’s just sharing the film with people and trying to shift perceptions in their own way.” We want people to use the film as a tool. Use the film, get it out there. Margaret Meade has said, “Social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals.” Essentially, the only way we can make change is through those individuals who are trying to have an impact. James’ story is one example of that.