One of my most distinct (and, in retrospect, most embarrassing) recent memories is a Skype video call I had with Blair, a disgustingly bright and talented girl I met whilst attending the 2009 US Go Congress in Washington D.C. At some point during the call, we began discussing global warming and the significance (or lack thereof, as my position essentially was) humans had in rising CO^2 levels and climate change. During this time, I displayed my hideous ignorance on the subject in a manner I considered to be quite well-reasoned and intelligent, and all Blair could do was politely sit back, nod her head, and let loose the occasional “True, true” after enduring several minutes of my pompous fuckwittery. I should note that I have never once denied the fact of climate change – in the Information age, the evidence is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection – but for some time, it didn’t occur to me just how substantial the growing changes were.
‘Chasing Ice’ begins with a montage of news bits and interviews displaying the apparent “controversy” surrounding global warming, with various experts and public figures at each other’s throats over the details. One of them featured Lewis Black on Piers Morgan squeezing his own head in frustration whilst saying “Global warming … is real.” “You’re about to implode,” Piers comments. I imagine this is what Blair was feeling during that conversation with me so many years ago. After watching this documentary, I realize just how right she had been in doing so. After all, she was able to see the truth buried underneath the sensationalism and seemingly impenetrable data. I was a bit too overwhelmed by the flurry to see the light on the other side. When I discovered that James Balog, the nature photographer at the film’s center, was just as confused as I was, I experienced a certain catharsis. If a genius like James could get lost, I shouldn’t feel any shame in having done so.
The film documents James Balog’s years-long survey of the deterioration of glaciers across the world. He and an experienced crew built and planted cameras in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and the Himalayas to create a series of videos, photographs, and time-lapses that would demonstrate the erosion of glaciers clearly and viscerally. No jargon, no numbers. All that is required of Balog’s audience is the ability to see, think and listen.
The photographs themselves are worthy of one of my personal heroes, Werner Herzog. Balog’s cameras show us the longest known glacial calving event ever recorded. Seeing massive volumes of ice break away and bob in the ocean as if they were nothing but clouds in the sky is as humbling as anything I have seen. The destructive implications sully, or perhaps enhance, the beauty of these images. Imagine for a moment if the pyramids of Giza, the extraordinary man-made wonders that they are, suddenly burst into sand and blew away in a gust of wind. This is what it was like to watch the time-lapse footage of glaciers being washed away in just a matter of years, sometimes even months. As is pointed out in the film, contained within these glaciers are tiny bubbles of prehistoric atmosphere, each layer of which contains vast knowledge of a certain era in Earth’s history. As these glaciers melt, so too does the evidence of our past.
The best documentaries are the ones that find the human narrative amongst the images, interviews, and raw information. Yes, ‘Chasing Ice’ has an incredibly urgent message about climate change, but it is first and foremost a portrait of a man with a passion and intelligence to match the scope of his undertaking. A photograph of a human face provides a window into the emotions, hardships, and history of the human being bearing it. Steve McCurry’s photograph of “the Afghan Girl” isn’t just a picture of a girl; in her face and eyes, one can see traces of a culture, environment, and way of thinking vastly different to our own. James Balog sees the same when photographing the faces of glaciers. To him, these are not simply chunks of ocean frozen in place and time but windows into the soul of the planet itself. And he will venture to the end of the Earth and back to find them and showcase them to a world that may not be willing to see the tragedy inherent in them.
At one point during the expedition, several of the cameras are found broken and dysfunctional. Some have been knocked off their mounts by falling rocks, and others have spent months with a broken timer. Because these cameras can only be checked once every several months, this means an entire season of patience and anticipation has been wasted. Balog breaks into tears upon realizing how much of his effort has been for nothing. It is small moments like this that give ‘Chasing Ice’ a genuine humanity not often seen in documentaries. Early on in the film, Balog tells the audiences that despite his education, he had little interest in becoming a scientist. From my perspective, anyone with such a deeply rooted passion and fascination towards the natural world is a scientist plain and simple, pure and true. If a man is willing to desecrate his own body (as indeed he does) in the name of truth and ambition, he has joined the ranks of Feynman, and anyone who knows me personally will know I do not take that name lightly.
I’ll leave the rest of the details to the film. There are so many startling surprises not just in the story but in the craftsmanship of the movie (not least in the aching score) that listing them all here would spoil the experience of discovering them for yourselves. After all, just as reading off a list of statistics isn’t nearly as visceral as seeing their real-life implications, reading a review on the Internet is no replacement for watching a movie. My only advice is that you leave all expectations and biases at the door, though I doubt you’ll have to. Humans can’t doubt what they see with their very eyes, and in this way, ‘Chasing Ice’ cuts through even the most vehement agenda. If you remain unconvinced of the truth of climate change by the end of this documentary, know this: I truly pity you.