Chasing Coral (2017)

So we’re now so on top of current releases that we’re watching a prominent 2017 release. It’s so new in fact that it doesn’t even have a proper Wikipedia page yet. This is a documentary by Jeff Orlowski who became known a few years back for Chasing Ice. We didn’t watch that one but we might go back for it in a bit though if this title is anything to go by, it must be a horribly depressing experience.

The film frames the story as starting with Richard Veyers, a former advertising executive who dives as a hobby realizing one day to help do something more meaningful by bringing Google Street View. After learning about coral bleaching events from various researchers, they decide to try to film the phenomenon as it occurs, reasoning that the dramatic change across only a matter of months would have a dramatic impact on audiences. They bring in Orlowski to direct this film and get a team to design a special underwater camera that could work underwater for months. It turns out that one of the team’s members, Zachary Rago, is also a complete coral nerd and a skilled diver. Thus he becomes a key participant as they install the new cameras at various sites and when the devices don’t quite work as well as they had hoped, helping to manually photograph coral sites at the Great Barrier Reef every day for a month just in time to catch an uptick in warm water temperatures that causes the bleaching events.

Nature documentaries invariably feature fantastic visuals and Chasing Coral does not disappoint in this regard. Those here are nothing short of sublime presenting an otherworldly landscape that most of us will never get to experience in person. Perhaps the most striking scene is when the team is surprised to see the coral emitting bright, fluorescent light. The sight is unreal and stunning yet also carries the weight of tragedy when you realize you are seeing them in the process of dying as they are stressed by the increasing water temperature. Other great shots including aerial footage that forces you to realize just how massive the Great Barrier Reef is and of course the summary of the video testimonials that they collected from volunteers all over the world who have noticed that coral reefs are dying in their respective areas. As a piece of showmanship perfectly geared to change minds and move the needle on the issue, Chasing Coral is just about perfect is every regard.

At the same time, I find myself being fascinating how, despite being a fairly conventional documentary, this is still a piece of theater. As I’ve mentioned, it frames Veyers as the driving force behind the initiative and it feels rather endearing that he looks a bit befuddled sandwiched between two scientists talking technical details, showing that he’s passionate and enthusiastic but lack any specialized knowledge in the area. Yet if you look at the film’s credits, he’s listed as a cast member and not a producer. Similarly it feels a bit odd that he more or less leaves the picture when they start working with the cameras and the film focuses on Rago who is the one actually doing the diving. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong or even disingenuous here. It’s just that it’s good to remember this is a very simplified account of a massive effort. They needed to pick one particular narrative in the process of making this film and that in itself always involves an element of artifice. For my part, given that all all this must obviously have cost a lot of money, I would have preferred them being a bit more forthcoming about how the funding for all this works and as that too is part of the story in my opinion.

Obviously I’m not a climate change skeptic. I am both moved by this film and extremely sympathetic to the filmmakers’ efforts to highlight the dire straits of our planet’s coral reefs. On the other hand, I’m not quite convinced by their optimistic message that it’s not too late to save them. The difficulty with corals is that warming oceans are a global problem completely unlike pollution which requires only a local solution. The film ends with a list of countries which have made commitments to fight climate change but it’s depressing to note that it’s mostly filled with Pacific Island nations that are the first to be affected by rising sea waters. This week’s issue of The Economist further lays bare the facts: just cutting net carbon dioxide output to zero would be insufficient, at some point if the target of preventing temperatures rising more than 2 degrees Celsius is to be achieved, the world needs to go on to remove the excess carbon dioxide already released on a massive scale. Managing to do this before the coral reefs all die seems pretty impossible to me.

While it would be completely unacceptable for the filmmakers’ to say so, I think that at this point, it might be more practical to try to save as much as we can of the ecosystem that depends on the coral reefs instead. While artificial reefs made out of old tyres may have fallen out of favor, ones made with concrete seems to be working out well. Researchers have also noticed offshore wind farms becoming hosts to new ecosystems. Geo-engineering is a dirty word to most environmentalists but I am convinced that preserving things as they used to be isn’t always feasible and we should be open to adapting the environment to survive changed circumstances.

Anyway this is an excellent documentary that I would easily recommend to everyone and I’m sure that it will have racked up a respectable slate of awards by this time next year. Even if you don’t much about the environmental message, the visuals alone are so stunning that it’s worth the price of admission.

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