In today’s political sphere, climate change is a topic of particular contention. Despite the scientific community’s warnings and proof literally raining down across the country, 4 out of 10 Americans remain calm about the subject. It’s often said that what scientist’s claim as proof is simple exaggeration, and the effects of warming aren’t major enough to have any effect on society. If you can’t see that something’s happening, is it really happening? Maybe, maybe not.
But what if you could watch, in a few mere seconds, the death throes of an entire ecosystem? Would that be proof enough?
Jeff Orlowski’s film “Chasing Coral” is a beautiful and deeply worrying documentary following a group of scientists on a journey to capture coral in the midst of bleaching using time-lapse photography. Right now, the world is in the midst of the largest mass bleaching event in history, and Orlowski and company chose to use the documentary medium to prove that our actions really do have an impact on the planet.
“Chasing Coral” is the spiritual sequel to Orlowski’s previous film, “Chasing Ice,” which captured the melting of glaciers in real time to showcase the impact of the changing atmosphere. In 2012, the issue of global warming was already hugely prevalent, and today that hasn’t changed. By choosing to follow up an already evocative piece on climate change with another, even more personal one, Orlowski doubles down on the importance of changing our ways to prevent more tragedy.
Now, when thinking of glacier recession, the term “tragedy” might seem a bit heavy handed. But in regards to the documented death of thousands of organisms, there is no term more apt.
The film consists of several sequences and interviews, tied together to tell two stories: A deep look at the bleaching event and coral’s subsequent demise, and the biologists’ journey to capture it in the act. In terms of documentaries, this makes the film slightly idiosyncratic. Typically, documentaries – even moreso when looking at nature documentaries – have one single story to tell. They’re informative, showing the viewers facts first and serving primarily as educational pieces. “Chasing Coral.” on the other hand, is as much about nature as it is about those looking at it.
In some ways, “Chasing Coral” is a reflexive documentary, drawing attention and commenting on the art of documentary filmmaking. What begins as a straightforward depiction of an impersonal research project quickly evolves into an emotion-filled journey of discovery. After a storm cools the water and forces them to abandon their original gear, the team is forced to manually shoot the film at a new location, taking hundreds of shots a day in as spots across a dying reef. As time goes on, and in the midst of watching that massive organism die, the illusion of work fades away and the effect is palpable.
There’s are two scenes near the end of the film which, on their own, are some of the most impactful scenes I’ve ever seen in a nature documentary. The first is the last day of the aforementioned manual expedition. The team watches and shoots as the coral begins to disintegrate, shedding flesh and cells across the landscape. The life that once reverberated across the reef has vanished, with fish life dropping dramatically. You can see as the cameramen begin to drop in morale, remarking on the pain they feel in these final moments.
The second is the culmination of the film’s project: A public screening of the coral time-lapses. This is the first and only time the film shows the actual coral bleaching in process, intercut with audience reactions, and it’s excruciatingly heartbreaking. Death isn’t something you can witness, at least not to this scale. In a series of shots, audiences are shown hundreds of pieces of coral losing their color and their life, disintegrating into the water as the life originally seen on the screen just fades aways. The audience begins intrigued, but as the shots continue, the color drains from their faces as well. You can actually see that moment of understanding on their face, when they realize the extent of this mass extinction, and their complete and utter feeling of helplessness.
“Chasing Coral” is at times a scientific document and others a parable of mankind’s capability for passive destruction. It marks the first time in history that a bleaching event was recorded to film, both monumentous and devastating. This film shouldn’t exist, in reality. Orlowski makes the point that was easily preventable if society changed its ways, and may still be reversible, but the outlook is grim. Perhaps this film may bring some skeptics to a final realization about climate change, but if “Chasing Ice” was any indication, it might be too little too late.
– Nathaniel Nelson