Out of sight, out of mind no more

‘Chasing Coral’ brings the marine fight home

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Chasing Coral
Courtesy of Netflix

In the last 30 years we have lost 50 percent of the world’s coral. This loss is far from arbitrary, and Chasing Coral — the latest documentary from Boulder-based filmmaker Jeff Orlowski — is the photographic evidence people need to emotionally attach to a cause.

The film opens with Richard Vevers, a former London ad-man who grew tired of selling toilet paper and decided to turn his attention to the ocean. Vevers’ out-of-the-box approach led him to partner with The Ocean Agency to create a massive survey of corals around the world and a Google Street View for coral reefs in the process.

While mapping, Vevers noticed some of the coral were turning bright white. The phenomenon is known as “bleaching” and is symptomatic of rising ocean temperatures — essentially the last gasp before the coral dies.

Bleaching is a by-product of global warming, but since it occurs below the surface, it is, as Vevers says, “an out of sight, out of mind” problem. Ever the ad-man, Vevers realized that to bring awareness to the problem he would need photographic proof. Enter Jeff Orlowski and company.

Stanford graduate Orlowski made his name with Chasing Ice, a film about glacier photographer James Balog and his journey to document disappearing glaciers. Orlowski followed Balog from the Arctic to Boulder, where he settled and founded Exposure Labs, a company that maximizes the impact of the documentary by combining powerful storytelling with a clear and urgent message. It worked, and Chasing Ice went on to receive an Emmy for outstanding nature programming.

“Sometimes it’s hard to watch climate change films,” Orlowski says. “They feel like homework. What we’re trying to do is to tell a compelling emotional story.

“It is our belief that if you hook people with a really compelling story [it will be] seen more widely and be more impactful than if we were just trying to club you over the head with an environmental message.”

Orlowski describes both Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral as “adventure stories,” which goes a long way to explain why these two movies are easily the most compelling documentaries about climate change.

“[Chasing Coral] is a team’s firsthand experience of what we’ve seen,” Orlowski says.

Courtesy of Netflix

Divided into three acts, Chasing Coral hooks viewers with Richard Vevers’ discovery about coral bleaching. The second act provides all the necessary information viewers need to understand what they are seeing.

For the third act, Orlowski takes this information and filters it neatly through Chasing Coral team member and coral nerd Zach Rago, a Coloradan who’s devoted his life to the study of coral.

“He’s the one who gave me a very different perspective of the issue,” Orlowski says. “Through Zach’s care and passion for the coral, you get a sense of what this means to him and hopefully that rubs off a little bit.”

That hook is the documentation of something we’ve lost and are continuing to lose. “There’s a lot of confusion about climate change in this country,” Orlowski says. “This is an incredibly urgent issue and there’s a huge imbalance between what the scientists think about this issue and what the general public think about this issue.

“We’re hoping this film can be a tool for people to understand.”

Similar to what Orlowski did with Chasing Ice and Exposure Labs he hopes to do with Chasing Coral. He is currently working on a campaign to get as many people as possible to see the film. “The more unexpected the messenger is on this issue, the more impact we can have in shifting mindsets across the country,” Orlowski says.

The success of that shifting mindset will begin with each individual viewer. Boulder audiences are lucky enough to be able to see Chasing Coral, for free, at the University of Colorado’s International Film Series. Orlowski and special guests will present the movie and try to motivate the audience into action.

“And maybe [the audience is] motivated in a different way to care about this incredibly beautiful and delicate ecosystem that is facing really rapid changes,” Orlowski says. “If you know nothing about the ocean and nothing about coral reefs, hopefully, you’ll see this film and be moved.”

On the Bill: Chasing Coral, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday Sept. 6, Muenzinger Auditorium, University of Colorado Boulder, internationalfilmseries.com. Also available on Netflix.