Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 07, 2018 5:01 pm 
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"I became a photographer to be an eye witness to the beauty of nature but I quickly realized there was a more complex story going on in the world about the collision between people and nature, and I felt a great sense of urgency to bear witness to that…Imbalance in one element leads to an imbalance in another. People are the only element that can choose to restore balance." – James Balog

For me the most convincing and important climate change documentary was Jeff Orlovski's Chasing Ice It records National Geographic photographer James Balog's work recording the melting of glaciers using multiple time release cameras that provide the information over years of what is happening to the ice at the ends of the planet. This is where the sea rises.

This is the clearest, simplest, and most disturbing visual proof that the frozen parts of the planet are rapidly eroding, causing the sea levels to rise.

With Matthew Testa Balog simply has another guy recording his work as a photographer. This time he moves to the elements, water, air, fire, and earth, and he suggests that humans constitute a fifth element interacting with, changing and being changed by the four others. Needless to say, I do not agree with the citizen critic on "Letterboxd" who wrote: "In the last few months I've seen An Inconvenient Truth, An Inconvenient Sequel, Chasing Ice, & Chasing Coral... This added nothing new." Here's what it's got that's new: this man's voice and personal camera. James Balog's information is always very visceral, personal, and clear. It doesn't feel like a survey but like reports from the front, this time, from multiple fronts, governed by the four elements.

The first element is water, rising sea water. Balog concentrates on the Chesapeake Bay region, particularly Tangier Island, a kind of canary in the coalmine of invading water levels. This little island community of "watermen" will need $100 million to build a seawall to protect its way of life from extinction. Where is this going to come from? New York City can afford the $180 billion or whatever it is it needs for a seawall, but Tangier Island is poor.

Burning fossil fuel has changed the air. Balog begins with a project to photograph the thin layer of breathable air to show how fragile it is. It's a simple project, using a balloon and several cameras, but it works. He then goes to visit a school and some kids in Denver where they have asthma and the air quality is bad. They cannot afford to move to another region. About half the US population lives in substandard air, the film says.

Fire: this is the most newsy and scary of the elements stories, as fresh as the fires in California. The "new normal" for forest fires is now 1000% percent increased. Balog covers with his camera a region in the Carmel Valley that was saved by a very large team at the cost of over $200 million, the most expensive firefighting project in US and perhaps world history. "The fire next time" is no poetic menace but a likely statement of the way things are going. A 5,000 acre fire in summer used to be exceptional. Now it's hardly noticed at all. As the film went to completion the big California fires were still raging. And while now it is no longer the custom just to "let fires burn" around property, because they are too powerful not to destroy all in their wake, it is also true that now there are fires that cannot be stopped at all. The film explains the multiple factors behind this exponential increase in fire. If you life in the american West or on the West Coast, no matter where you are the danger of fire could be real.

Water, air, and fire. Next comes earth. Here Balog returns to his family's origins in the coal mining country of Pennsylvania where his Russian grandfather worked in the mines. He expresses a new respect for what these men did, which was right at the time. It is also true that now, nothing can restore the economic viability of coal. A young man is shown who has gone to barber school and loves cutting hair even more than he loved the mines. Some of the mine owners are shown to have moved toward developing solar energy over the vast land area they own that was used for coal mining. So this looks like one of the more positive pictures. But we are reminded that the US announced its intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2010, , the only country to have done so - one of the chief indications of the terrible in which we are going.

The film ends with the March for Science of April 22, where Balog speaks, and also with a catalog of major natural disasters that have recently happened and their human toll. "Three hurricanes cost the US economy $265 billion. 251 people died." "Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, reached the highest levels in 800,000 years." We have an "inalienable right", Balog said at the March for Science, to stable elements on which we rely for life. We are the only ones who can achieve that.

The Human Element, 76 mins., was in post-production according to IMDb. It's a brand new film. It debuted at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened for this review.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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