Rare is the filmmaker who tells a story that’s heartbreaking enough to document devastation, yet hopeful enough to inspire audiences.
Jeff Orlowski, director of the 2017 Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, knows how to build this balance, in part because it mirrors his own discoveries of the ocean after a 13-year absence. Orlowski was scuba certified in 2004, but focused his energies elsewhere, including trekking across the Arctic to document glacial melting for the 2012 film Chasing Ice.
“I knew very little about the ocean,” he says of his life before receiving the call from Richard Vevers, founder of The Ocean Agency, asking him to come on board. “I had two big realizations: One, things are a lot worse than most people think, and two, things are a lot better than people think.
“It’s hard for people to understand what they’re looking at when they see coral bleaching. People are so used to seeing white coral,” he says, pointing out that people often display dead, white corals on the coffee tables of their beach homes.
Photos alone weren’t enough to alert nondivers to the problem. His team knew that time-lapse footage would help viewers see and understand how quickly corals bleach and die. But capturing that footage proved far more challenging than expected.
When cameras mounted near corals failed to capture in-focus footage, Orlowski and his team chose to manually shoot 25 locations every day, then splice them together to create the same time-lapse effect.
“It was an extremely tedious effort,” he says. “Divers have a sense of how challenging that is.”
But harder than that was the emotional struggle, the heartbreak of realizing so much work had been in vain, and finding the grit to keep going.
“We felt like we had to — we felt a responsibility,” he says.
The mass-bleaching event his team was shooting was tied to El Niño, and they didn’t want to have to wait until the next El Niño event to document it.
“You can’t easily predict the next El Niño,” he says.
And so they pushed on. They met with success, but of course, recognized that their success in documenting tragedy isn’t something to celebrate. Rather, they hope it becomes a call to action. The website chasingcoral.com spells out exactly how viewers can help. The site is meant to incite viewers to ask questions, but the one question Orlowski doesn’t want you to ask yourself is, “What can I do to change this?”
“That question frustrated me for a number of reasons,” he says. “It implies that this is a problem that a single person can solve. We need to be asking, ‘What can we do? What can my community do?’”
This is where Orlowski feels optimistic.
“The solution includes clean-energy solutions, which are changing so fast and becoming so much better than I thought,” he says. He hopes communities, be they cities or states, band together, committing to clean energy and clean jobs. “Get involved with the city council and ask, ‘What is our policy?’ and ‘How are we building sustainability?’” he says.
Those who view the film could experience a similar shift in attitude as Orlowski did when making the film.
“Now, I get why the dive community is there, and I get why they do it. I want to spend more time in the water,” he says. “Really, this experience for me … I didn’t expect to fall in love.”
The Next Step
Those who feel compelled to help save coral reefs might be stumped on how to act. Chasingcoral.com outlines some ways to take action, and one of the Chasing Coral initiatives suggests that viewers ask five people, especially those who aren’t already advocates for ocean conservation, to watch the film. “One of the biggest challenges is that a lot of these types of stories preach to the same choir,” says Orlowski. “That’s why the film is on Netflix, available to anyone.”