2017 Sundance Film Festival London: Chasing Coral Review
The burning question of the day is, how much do you really know about coral? Pause for a moment to think about how informed you are about this complex animal. Yes, that’s right, I said (sessile) animal. Chances are you probably know more about seaweed – because it landed up on your plate that one time at a Chinese restaurant a few years back– than you know about coral. Director Jeff Orlowski follows up his equally alarming Chasing Ice documentary, bringing the troubling phenomena of ‘coral bleaching’ to our attention, with surprisingly emotional results.
Richard Vevers is the man responsible for initially driving this awareness campaign, an ex-advertising exec from London, with a passion for scuba diving. After years spent debating the finer points of marketing campaigns for toilet rolls, amongst other things, Richard was keen to seek out a more meaningful existence. So he created Underwater Earth (now The Ocean Agency), a non-profit organisation set up to promote marine environments.
The growing concern around the effects of global warming on the temperature of the sea and, subsequently, the bleaching and death of coral reefs, snowballed into an ambitious project never attempted before. A time-lapse experiment was launched attempting to capture the bleaching in order for people to witness the devastating effects for themselves. A rise of only one or two degrees in the ocean gradually strips the coral of its structure, until all that is left is a white skeletal frame. Unable to grow, it eventually dies. When you consider that a quarter of all marine life house themselves in coral reefs, and in 2016 alone, 22% of the Great Barrier Reef was bleached, you begin to understand the scale of the problem.
We are taken under the surface of the sea into the metropolis of these labyrinth-like structures, made up of thousands of tiny creatures called polyps. Exploring this alien underwater world is as mesmerising as any Attenborough documentary, such is the array of psychedelic colour on display. Each coral is unique in its design, resembling anything from a bright underwater brain to an aquatic suction cup flower.
Part of the underwater camera team is self-confessed coral nerd Zackery Rago, a marine biologist whose journey across the course of the project serves as our conduit into the emotional centre of the story. His excitement about being part of this project takes us through the problems they experience with the time-lapse cameras, which fail to work on two occasions, when set-up in Hawaii, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. With time running out, Zack and Vevers are left with no choice but to pursue the manual option - meticulously filming 30 different underwater locations, two minutes at time, every day, for a gruelling two months.
What we see in the final version is quietly heartbreaking. As Zack reveals, spending two months watching something you love slowly die in front of your eyes is soul destroying. Presented for the first time at an annual marine biology conference, the videos bring tears to the eyes of experienced biologists and you will be hard pressed not share in their sadness. As we are told, these reefs are essentially cities for marine life that can remain there for an entire lifespan and the effect on not only the food chain but economies for millions of people and our ecosystem as a whole, is incalculable.
These type of documentaries can prove to be overwhelming and quite scary at times, given how bleak these prescient warnings can sound. The film ends on a more positive and upbeat note, calling on the optimism and strength of the younger generation to guide the world away from disaster. Not only is this documentary a passion project but one that serves as an educational tool for so many of us unaware of the importance coral plays in sustaining sea life and, of course, our own. It smartly avoids preaching down to its audience, choosing instead to wake us up to a critical issue taking place right underneath our own feet.