Cambridge Film Festival 2012: Chasing Ice

One man’s mission to show the world incontrovertible evidence of climate change forms the basis of the amazing, awe- and dread-inspiring, documentary Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, which may turn out to be the stand-out film of the festival. James Balog is a geologist turned National Geographic photo-journalist who had been sceptical about the possibility of human activity having an effect on the Earth’s temperature and weather right until he was sent on a assignment to get shots of an Arctic glacier. Six months after taking photographs he returned to exactly the same spot to find the ice so diminished as to render the scene unrecognisable, and it was this realisation of how quickly water was being released into the world’s oceans that set him on his major project: an ambitious attempt to achieve time-lapse videos of receding glaciers by setting up cameras at strategic points in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska. This was a fiddly, technically challenging and dangerous operation as the cameras were to be attached to rock faces and left unattended for months at a time, and Balog’s team initially experienced a number of setbacks due to malfunctioning electronics, weather-damaged hardware and power failures, but they persevered and the results are extraordinary – you can actually see the glaciers retreating, sometimes by a matter of miles over only three or four years.

This is one of those films that needs to be seen on as large a screen as possible in order to really appreciate the scale of the physical phenomena being shown. Frankly it’s the worth the price of admission just for the establishing shots of the massive and weirdly architectural icebergs and formations – they often seem to possess a smoothness and perfectly proportioned sculptural quality that’s more beautiful and affecting than any man-made structure. Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just how vast these things are, but the film-makers have the good sense to include the occasional shot showing an ant-like researcher or what looks like a toy helicopter somewhere in the white wilderness. Balog himself comes across as an inspiring figure, both a grounded and knowledgeable scientist and an excellent communicator and group leader, capable of spurring his small team on acts of endurance and stamina that sometimes seem way beyond the call of duty – would you fancy spending three weeks in a small tent on a cliff-side in Greenland with a video camera on the off-chance that the five mile glacier in front of you decides to calve some ice (it was worth it. Eventually a lump half the size of Manhattan broke off, and the footage is extraordinary)? While the documentary is firmly science-based, and even gets away with including a few bar charts and statistics, there is some human interest here too, in the shape of Balog’s dodgy knee, which his surgeons have operated on repeatedly and have advised is in no fit shape to allow him to be yomping up the side of mountains. Balog’s no martyr but you can sense his dilemma between his health and family’s concerns on one side and his duty to humanity on the other.

Chasing Ice is brilliant, clear and pretty devastating in terms of the implications for the planet’s future it exposes. Anyone who says that the case for climate change being a real and pressing concern is yet to be made needs to be strapped in and forced to watch it right now.

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