Documentary and Advocacy Connections in ‘We Rise’

Documentaries can play various roles in advocacy work. In the book We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement that Restores the Planet, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez cites several examples useful for illustrating the diversity of these roles.

A documentary can evoke a wide range of emotions. Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Eleventh Hour chronicles the global destruction caused by human activity. Thought upset at seeing the film, Martinez became motivated to do something. He writes, “It felt like a huge turning point for me.”

A documentary can introduce you to new parts of the world and to the issues affecting them. For Martinez, the epic Planet Earth showed him the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, while Chasing Coral showed its devastating destruction. Martinez interviews documentary director Jeff Orlowski, who created both Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice. Chasing Ice shows the impacts of environmental changes on the melting Arctic ice cap, while Chasing Coral tries to uncover the causes for the reefs dying so quickly.

A documentary can educate about key issues and inspire further research. Martinez cites his friend’s viewing of Joe Berlinger’s Crude, which tells the story of Chevron’s refusal to clean up the oil waste and its impacts on the Amazon communities. His friend did more research into the issues, found organizations helping out, and volunteered for them.

A documentary can open mainstream media doors for other media about similar issues. Martinez interviews Adrian Grenier, who played Vincent Chase on Entourage. Grenier cites An Inconvenient Truth as helping get people to pay attention to his eco-conscious reality show Alter Eco.

A documentary also can inspire other media makers to create their own works. Grenier counts Encounters from the End of the World, by Werner Herzog, as one of his inspirations.

A documentary can tell the stories of other activists and their work. Sandra Steingraber is an environmental activist whose work and life is featured in the book and documetary Living Downstream. Martinez even appears in the short documentary Kid Warrior, which chronicles his life so far and his work as Earth Guardian Youth Director.

Documentary makers themselves can become involved in direct and indirect actions toward raising awareness about climate change. Martinez recalls Josh Fox, director of How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change and Gasland, participated in an action to prevent a coal ship from leaving port.

And finally, a documentary screening can bring people together in communities to talk about issues and what they can do about them. Martinez mentions this option a couple times as part of his suggestions for what people can do to start advocating for the planet. Many documentaries do offer special rates for just those kinds of screenings.

Three Docs on Ice: Science, Spectacle, and Storytelling

Dena Seidel’s Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South recently became available on iTunes. Its topic and telling found me watching two other related documentaries: Chasing Ice and Encounters at the End of the World. All three address in part glaciers and climate change. What differs among them is their focuses on science, spectacle, and storytelling.

Science and the scientific process assume center stage in Antarctic Edge. Seidel’s documentary follows scientists taking a one-month boat trip along the Antarctic coast. They study climate change through penguins, humpback whales, krill, water, and of course ice. They study samples from the water and evaluate animals using very expensive and sensitive equipment.

Multiple experts explain their studies and their significance. Warmer temperatures mean habitat and food availability changes for penguins, for example. The scientists also explain the processes in conducting their studies. Animations visualize these processes.

While multiple experts appear, no one person becomes the forerunner, the “star.” All studies stand on equal footing in their representations.

Instead of starting with science, Chasing Ice begins with stunning ice spectacles. James Balog, photographer and founder the Extreme Ice Survey, believes that photography provides the “visible evidence” needed to show the impacts of climate change through the rapidly retreating glaciers.

Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, follows Balog’s passion and his study, which involves setting up cameras to capture glacial changes throughout Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and other places. We learn about Balog’s life, career, and obstacles alongside the challenges of the project, including rigging cameras to function within extreme weather conditions.

Both documentaries feature sequences of calving, where the ice breaks and falls into the ocean. In itself, calving might not sound interesting, until you realize the scale: Some of those ice chunks exceed twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Antarctic Edge shows some stunning glacial formations and calving, but they are traveling shots along the scientists’ journey. Chasing Ice, however, makes showing these spectacles and getting them on camera the focal point for highlighting climate change.

A massive calving becomes the climax of the film. Balog sends two scientists to watch a glacier for a month to see if it does anything. After three weeks of nothing spectacular, they record the largest calving event ever caught on camera. (Headphones are recommended for hearing the rumble that accompanies this event.)

While Antarctic Edge focuses on science and Chasing Ice focuses on spectacle, Encounters at the End of the World focuses on people and the human condition. I have written about this film before, but it is worth revisiting briefly here as it shows another approach to science, spectacle, and storytelling.

Funded by the National Science foundation and staunchly refusing to make a film about penguins, Werner Herzog visits Antarctica. While attracted to the natural beauty, Herzog ultimately is more interested people’s stories.

He does speak with scientists, such as a glaciologist who talks at length about ice dynamics and climate change. Other scientists explain the dynamics of the active volcano and penguin insanity. But he also speaks to the people driving trucks, raising plants, and doing maintenance who live and work as part of the community there.

The visuals in Encounters at the End of the World are stunning or utilitarian. The stunning include snowy landscapes, underwater seascapes, and volcanic formations. The more utilitarian show the base and its operations. But ultimately for Herzog, the bigger questions are not science and climate change, but the depressing question of humanity’s impending demise.