2017 Rewind: CHASING CORAL (Jeff Orlowski)

As Academy Awards season commences, I’ll be revisiting possible contenders from the past year that I’ve missed. Since the Oscars recently announced the 15 shortlisted full-length documentaries – five of which will eventually be formally nominated – I’m beginning by catching up with those.

Hopefully I didn’t start with the best one, because Chasing Coral brought one predominant question to mind: Why, out of the many superb documentaries that came out this year (I’ll reveal my list of personal favorites later), did the Academy shortlist a glorified public service announcement?

Yes, the subject – coral reefs and climate change’s devastating impact on them –  is self-evidently important, and director Jeff Orlowski combines expectedly-gorgeous visuals (it’s a crime that Netflix didn’t release this in IMAX) with engaging education,  communicating dense science concisely, coherently, and sometimes even entertainingly. But there are no artistic layers here, no depth; just a plea for attention.

Take the imagery, which is gorgeous enough to warrant a second mention. It would’ve benefited from more storytelling in the composition of the underwater footage; the images comprising certain montages lacks sufficient relation with each other, underutilizing the potential deepening created by smart juxtaposition.

No matter the vitality of Chasing Coral‘s message, and despite its desire to facilitate some societal progress (a long-shot since – though Netflix should be commended for funding the project – the company spent barely any money raising awareness about its existence, which can be best achieved through theatrical distribution. Which is Netflix’s arch-nemesis. Thus making Netflix my enemy), documentaries should not be credited for the nobility of their intents. Most are about Serious Subjects, and a vast majority are as competently made as Chasing Coral. 

I actually had the same reaction to another environment-minded shortlisted choice: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, Al Gore’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning original. Truth be told, I probably preferred it to Chasing Coral. Though its cinematography obviously isn’t as eye-catching, the sequel features more artful storytelling. In addition, it actually presents possible solutions to the depicted problems throughout.

Chasing Coral instead fixates more on how to cinematically document the problem, going with the classic – and not nearly as convincing – approach of suggesting solutions only at the very end using title cards, culminating by directing audiences to find out more on the movie’s website. I actually laughed at the final card: “This film is dedicated to all the young people who can and will make a difference.” BUT HOW CAN WE?! It would’ve been infinitely smarter to do that work for naturally lazy viewers.

Does we desperately need to heed the warnings of these documentaries? Of course. But Academy Award voters are not activists; they’re evaluators of art. Their choices can of course factor in how much they want the movie to be seen by others, because an awards boost may always result in more eyeballs. But the artistry of both these options pales in comparison to their sociopolitical relevance.

To end on a personal note: Whenever I watch a particularly one-sided documentary, its simplicity often bores me into thinking of possible counter-arguments the filmmakers could’ve presented. I’m absolutely NOT a climate change denier; I wholeheartedly trust the vast majority of scientists. But I firmly hold that the best way to shoot down oppositional viewpoints is by facing them head on; debunking them requires first citing them, instead of letting the audience come up with some themselves without a rebuke from the movie.

In brainstorming any conceivable dissenting opinion to Chasing Coral, I may have cognitively stumbled upon a doozy:

Apocalypticism dates back to the dawn of humanity; every era has contained certain segments of society who were convinced the end of the world would occur in their lifetimes. Most of these people were usually religious. If science is the 21st century’s ultimate belief system, then who’s to say that global warming isn’t just the most recent iteration of apocalypticism? Every generation likes to believe they might be the last, yet history has proven each paranoid one wrong.

Then again, one generation is bound to be right eventually, and no one will be around afterwards to finally see a day when apocalypticism came true. And a crucial difference is that many climate experts predict that the worst damage will be incurred way after their deaths.

Even so, I’d love to see a documentary chronicling the history of apocalypticism and its relation to global warming…as long as it wasn’t as simplistically straightforward as An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power and Chasing Coral.

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