November 17, 2018

Review: Chasing Ice at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival

Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival opened on Wednesday night with a Gala screening of Chasing Ice by Jeff Orlowski. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival in January, the film has garnered awards from various film festivals including Canada’s Hot Docs. A perfect fit for Berwick’s festival theme Pictures in Motion the film follows National Geographic photographer James Balog in his quest to use time-lapse camera’s to capture images of the ice caps all over the world, thereby showing visually, what many scientists feel has been ignored as evidence of the effects of global warming.

As an opening film, it can’t be ignored that it set a gloomy tone, ostensibly telling the story of the human failure to protect the planet and seeing footage of natural disasters. However it is undoubtedly a stunning cinematic work that for the scale of what is portrayed demands a viewing on the big screen, and for this Berwick delivered. Balog is shown to be a very charismatic person, who cares deeply about his endeavour and those of his team on the Extreme Ice Survey. Orlowski carefully covers the development of the project from idea stage to the delivery of their evidence at several climate change summit’s and conferences. He makes sure to carry the audience along in the emotional journey undertaken by Balog too including the lows (cameras initial failure, Balog’s knee injuries) and highs (witnessing huge calving events, the first successful images captured). Though highly affective, at points this felt overly manipulative, particularly interviews with Balog’s daughter bearing tearful testimony to his long episodes of absence from the family home.

The tension in the film comes from the dichotomy between positive and negative outcomes of the project. By documenting the undertaking of such a huge task to show the world the impact of climate change – time lapse images that reveal the extent to which the ice caps are receding – Orlowski succeeds in carrying the audience along with Balog’s investment in the project and hopes of success. The success – creating the images that prove the scientists right– is demonstrably evidence of failure; the failure of people to either prevent climate change or to be doing enough to reverse its effects. Therefore what is uplifting as a narrative arc is also devastating. The sight of miles and miles of ice caps breaking away in one enormous calving event is astounding, but also horrific, and perhaps therefore essential viewing.

A powerful note to start the festival with then, and one that makes you want to recycle more too. Also screening ahead of the main feature on opening night was a short film about photographers called, Photographers. Commissioned by the festival in partnership with the North East Photography Network, this short by Mishka Henner and David Oates is a montage of images, including a selection from iconic films such as Blow Up and Rear Window that focus on the photographer rather than their subject. There to introduce the film, Henner described how they felt that the notion of the professional photographer was gone, that ‘everyone is a photographer’ and that there are no longer photographs, but billions of ‘images’ available for free online. The intention of the duo, working under the collective BlackLab was to create a portrait of how the photographer has been portrayed before they become obsolete. Though the use of repetition, split screen and focus on the people behind the lens was canny and entertaining, I would argue that by using clips from cinema, Photographers reaffirmed the supposed irrelevance of the professional photographer by presenting a character, another ‘image’, recycled from other images. A more apt title for the film might have been, Actors Playing Photographers. I wondered what footage of real photographers might have told us about this underappreciated art… but not for long as then the impressive James Balog appeared in Chasing Ice. 

Photographers is screening as part of an installation in Shoregate Ice House throughout the festival and for more information about the festival look here.

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