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images by Hans Neuman

Despite overwhelming scientific proof, climate change still occupies a strange position in the contemporary mindset. For some it is part fact, for others part fiction, and for a small but vocal minority, it is a wholly mythical phenomenon. For National Geographic photographer James Balog and filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, however, it’s a force that they have witnessed and recorded first-hand over many years.

The duo is responsible for Chasing Ice, the story of Balog’s mission to change the tide of history by gathering undeniable evidence of climate change. Using time-lapse cameras, his videos compress years into seconds and capture ancient mountains of ice in motion as they disappear at a breathtaking rate.

“I met James through a mutual friend and I wanted to be involved in helping him document what he was doing”, says the film’s director Orlowski. “We weren’t planning on making a film, we just wanted to capture his story and over the course of time we kept following him and shooting and ultimately we had enough footage and realised how powerful it would be to make a film about it.”

Orlowski believes that Balog’s adventure is key to the success of Chasing Ice, which has gone on to win 23 awards including Excellence in Cinematography Award: US Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and the Environmental Media Association’s 22nd Annual Best Documentary Award. “The fact it’s a human story is the core of it”, he says. “We’re showing very visual images. It’s the first time we can see climate change visually. Its not just somebody on the news showing graphs and charts, it is somebody actually going out and collecting the images and data to share with the world.”

“We’ve had people come up to us afterwards and said they were sceptical about climate change before going to see the film, but because they saw James’ dedication and persistence and care for the project, they have re-evaluated their views on the issue. It’s a tremendous story and having that personal voice makes it relatable.”

“The public want to know they are getting truth. They are somewhat disillusioned with the media and news and somewhat starved of truth and reality. We didn’t want to present a boring talking head film filled with facts and figures and statistics. We wanted to film an adventure and that has resonated.”

Orlowski filmed around the world, working in some of the most extreme conditions imaginable on locations in Iceland, Greenland, Bolivia, the Alps, Alaska, and Glacier National Park, Montana. “It was incredibly difficult”, he says. “Nobody had ever done time lapses like this before and James had to invent the technology that could last for multiple years out in the field. We had shoots in negative 40 degrees in the brutal cold and it’s very difficult to operate a camera like that. But it was a matter of responsibility. When we saw the images in the time lapses we felt we needed to share it with the world. The goal wasn’t for political change; the goal was for education and awareness and hopefully to shift perception, to make people recognise what is going on. Certainly in the States there is still a debate as to whether climate change it is happening and whether it is manmade. In the media, this debate borders on the childlike. But the reality is that scientists are in consensus and the images are there to demonstrate what the scientists are talking about. We really just wanted to get the story out there so people can see the story for themselves.”

Now that the film has reached a wider audience, has the motivation shifted?
“Yes it has”, says Orlowski. “The goal was to share James’ story, but after seeing the impact and response to the film, we now want to see how it can serve to make more impact. We have done some screenings before congress in the US. We want to use it as a tool, we want people to engage with it and to share the imagery because action is needed now.”
words by Bianca Bridget Bonomi