By: Everett Shen
When asked about the biggest news story of 2016, what comes to mind? South America saw a Zika outbreak, the UK voted to leave the European Union, and we in the US elected a new president. But there’s one little-reported event that could potentially have more far-reaching repercussions than them all. Last year’s El Niño of the spring and summer brought more than just storms—it unleashed a global mass bleaching event that affected 93% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and left 22% of its coral dead. With half a billion people worldwide economically reliant on the sustenance that reefs provide and regions approaching the size of the US East Coast being lost to climate change every year, this ought to have been one of the summer’s largest talking points. But alas, it was doomed to be overshadowed by the raging fire of the political arena.
Enter Jeff Orlowski, director of Chasing Coral, leading a determined team of videographers, divers, and scientists on a mission to document it all for the first time in history and give it the audience it deserves.
I saw the film at the public library’s Environmental Film Festival, an annual event founded in 2007 that has now grown to have become quite the spectacle. It was closing closing night, and judging by the fact that the room was packed twenty minutes before it even started, someone had clearly spread the word that we were in for a ride. By the halfway mark, hands were wiping faces, and when the curtains finally fell, about half the audience looked teary-eyed. So how did Orlowski manage to make a group of adults cry about coral?
It’s a simple concept: manmade climate change causes coral to become “sick” and reject its algae cells, which it depends on for food, eventually causing the coral to starve and turn white. We know how the process works, and data to support mass bleaching has been available for decades. As one adman-turned-activist pointed out in the doc, “a lot of the issues are basically advertising issues.” People can’t rally around a cause if they don’t even know what the cause is. So the obvious move for the filmmakers was to advertise the epidemic—by bombarding the audience with eye-poppingly gorgeous footage of vibrant, almost extraterrestrial-looking, coral reefs. Lots of it. And then showing them what they look like dead. With the opening shot of a diver falling backwards into the sea at magic hour, Orlowski creates such a profound sense of serenity and wonder that when he takes it all away, it’s as if he’s tearing away a friend that you’ve known since birth.
Part nature documentary and part investigative report, the film centers on a single project of epic proportions: the filmmakers’ attempt to capture the process of bleaching in a timelapse. After multiple rounds of trial and error, a bold engineering venture yielded only underwater camera systems that slowly unfocused themselves. With the clock ticking, the undaunted team had only one option left: manual capture. In a span of weeks, multiple crews, director included, dove to the ocean floor, placed their cameras on previously marked spots, took a picture, and finally, via boat, moved on to the next location. Twenty-five times a day. In a world where exposure to the world via Internet is available 24/7, there are few things that still carry the ability to shock.Nevertheless, when shown the resulting footage, I began to well up with disbelief. This was happening everywhere across the world on a massive scale, and we had been totally oblivious.
Not content with merely letting the audience see the destruction for themselves, the film attaches a human face to the sorrow it evokes. Zack Rago, introduced as one of the engineers working on the camera systems, quickly becomes one of the core participants in the rush to capture footage. A self-proclaimed (and actual) coral-nerd, Zack’s lifelong enthusiasm and exultant expressions while discussing the wonders of coral aid the audience’s emotional understanding and compose a huge factor of the film’s enjoyability. When he breaks down while viewing the aftereffects of bleaching, it’s one of the most heartbreaking things ever captured in a documentary.
But despite all these descriptions, Chasing Coral is not a film that relies on fear, desperation, or guilt to deliver it’s message. While watching coral rot away conveys a heavy feeling, the prevailing message is one of hope. Its pathos is pensive in nature, never desolate or despairing. It’s not just a collection of beautiful footage and the documentation of a wild adventure. It contains scores of facts, interviews that put things into perspective, and a strong-willed call to action. Its attitude is best summed up by one of the quotes from the same aforementioned adman: “Anything can be solved with creativity.” Towards the final act, we see Zack leading a new coral bleaching awareness non-profit that tours the country in a classroom converted from a school bus. We see the director reaching out to people living near reefs around the world to document bleaching in their own communities. We hear from leading scientists in the field who discuss the possibility of a turnaround, pointing out how a renewable energy replacement could take place just as quickly as the fossil fuel revolution. The film’s credits overlay more footage of reefs teeming with life, as if to say “all of this is within our reach.” Little wonder that it took this year’s Audience Award at Sundance.
I’ve long struggled to find the distinguishing trial that our generation will be remembered for. Our parents had working towards a more egalitarian society. The Baby Boomers had fighting in World War II. Ours will undoubtedly be combatting climate change. I’m compelled to recall words I heard at Princeton’s Earth Day march for science not so long ago, spoken by our mayor. She highlighted that ours will be the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last one with the ability to change it. Jon Brodie, an environmental researcher, put climate change in much more graphic terms: “If it’s not under control by 2025, it’s game over for the reefs.”