Canberra International Film Festival: Chasing Ice

Published on November 12th, 2012

By Calum Logan

Director: Jeff Orlowski
Writer: Mark Monroe
Length: 76 min.

I entered Chasing Ice hoping to explore the sublime. I was disappointed. The filmmakers certainly capture some amazing imagery of glaciers breaking up and retreating. Sadly, this feat never receives its deserved artistic handling. Instead, the remarkable footage serves an inane and misguided attempt to alert the viewing public to the dangers of climate change.

In its progressive message Chasing Ice is curiously poor propaganda. Rather than allow the images to work their emotional magic convincing us climate change is the end of the world, this documentary insists on the primacy of heroic reason at every turn. The makers of this film seemingly have no insight into the foundations upon which their argument rests. The film seems to be the work of scientists who understand little about civilisation, and still less of how to talk with people.

Chasing Ice opens by introducing James Balog and his mission to “show” the world the impact of modernity. Balog is a National Geographic photographer who has apparently anointed himself for this heroic task. He plans to develop a series of time lapse montages documenting the retreat of three glaciers. As such, much of the film is driven by a determination to establish “perspective,” both in a literal photographic sense and an ontological sense.

I propose Balog is actually looking to alter cosmological perspectives, though this is never elucidated, for reasons I will turn to shortly. To simplify his campaign strategy: when confronted with the montages charting glacier reduction, western consumers will assemble the linkages between their everyday actions and this sublime geomorphic process, recognise the consequences, and change their ways accordingly. This is an ambitious expectation of a film that at best reaches shoddy propaganda, never more.

More interesting, and ultimately why such campaigns will never work, is the film’s surreptitious iteration of the very values and ideas that have led us to this juncture. Balog is the contemporary scientific hero: an updated noble geographer charting the empty spaces, extending civilisational gaze. He is also the social reformer that brought us rational, systematic communities, and the engineer who built the incredible cities and spanned the expanses between them. However, this civilisation’s triumph is also its destruction. These values, identities, and qualities are not reconsidered, rather redirected with the utmost vigour to the moral crusade of our time.

Indeed the film even inscribes this recursive spiral in the motif of Balog’s failing knee. Reconstructed numerous times, Balog punishes it again, trekking and climbing against doctor’s orders, in the determination that the project’s end rationalises his knee’s destruction. This is also justified with the hope that science will provide answers in the future. A postscript duly informs us stem cell therapy indeed healed the knee.

Chasing Ice is a missed opportunity; it could have been the basis of a genuine exploration, a journey of discovery. Instead we are shown only what we already know; the same values and sentiments, simply illuminated against a different landscape.

The 16th Canberra International Film Festival ran from October 31 to November 11. You can read Calum’s reviews here.

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