by Ashley Sullivan: They may not have the cute faces of animals we typically feel a connection to, but these animals are calling out for our help…
The recent film Chasing Coral takes viewers on an underwater journey to demonstrate coral bleaching due to climate change. The reality of the devastation happening to ocean ecosystems is grim, but the film delivers beauty along with an overall message about the one thing most important of all – hope. We were grateful to speak with director and producer, Jeff Orlowski — who is a friend of Dr. Jane Goodall — about the film and his passion for sharing stories to inspire action.
Tell me a little bit about yourself: How did you become involved in filmmaking?
Growing up we would get National Geographic – I fell in love with pictures of the world, and knew I wanted to be a photographer. Part of my interest actually also stems from Dr. Goodall. I met Jane when I was a senior in high school in NYC. It was an emotional time, as we met directly before the events of 9/11. I was the editor-in-chief of my school’s newspaper and Jane wrote for us about how we should still have hope after 9/11. We connected and built a strong friendship; She has been a great mentor. I’ve heard her speak hundreds of times, and she is my communication inspiration.
Later on, I shifted to cinematography. My senior year in college, I got an invitation to go to Iceland, which was a dream. In my exploration, I realized how much of nature is changing. Capturing nature set me down a path to discover the harsh realities of climate change. I was aware of it, but didn’t realize the magnitude. Now, I use film as tool to show what’s happening in the world and hope to get people to care.
You’ve worked on two recent and notable pieces with “Chasing” in the name: Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. What are you (we) chasing and why is it so important?
The planet is changing drastically and it’s most evident where people don’t normally go. We capture the visual story of change in remote places, and bring it home. There are a lot of dismissive people. It’s easy to remain in the bubbles of our lives and not connect the dots between local and larger scale change. Connection is not going to come from charts or preaching, but from stories through the eyes of people who care. If you see coral dying through Zack Rago’s (coral lover/camera tech featured in the film) eyes, you’ll want to do something.
It’s important to look at our actions and ask, “Are we ok killing coral reefs?” We may collectively say, ‘Yeah.’ But that’s not what I feel or what most people think when they realize what’s happening. Dr. Goodall doesn’t say ‘you must do this’. To articulate a point, she might tell a story about an amazing pig that saves someone’s life. Sharing emotional stories gets people to think about our relationship to the planet. We want people to fall in love with coral reefs like Jane has people fall in love with pigs, chimpanzees, or other causes.
Dr. Goodall has said, “Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right. ” How do you feel your films are a “dialogue” and how do you want to reach people with your message?
That’s the entire goal. This film was made with naysayers and skeptics in mind; I pictured conservative friends while making it. We didn’t want to just make this for the “environmental choir.” It’s important to know your audience and how to engage with them.
We’re also working on an impact campaign to use the film as a tool for more conversations. We want to reach unexpected communities, messengers and champions. How do we get the local business person, politician, or football quarterback say, ‘I care, and I want to do something.’? The film is politically neutral because the issue transcends politics. We need to build bridges to protect nature for nature’s sake, and because it is our home. We have a huge opportunity to turn things around and we can all work together.
What was it like to know you were filming the demise of a massive coral ecosystem? What have you learned from that experience in terms of facing a hopeless situation and turning it into hope for others?
Forests, coral reefs, the arctic — all these ecosystems are being stressed beyond their capacity. It’s daunting and deeply saddening. When I think about that, I also think about Jane. Jane didn’t go to Gombe to be a communicator and activist; She went there because she loves animals. I went to Iceland because I wanted to travel and take pictures. The job of environmental photography shifted from being an idyllic dream job to this burden of being on the frontlines of our planet falling apart. Jane went to a pristine place and watched it change. Now she works every day for it to be saved. Jane’s lectures start with first person narrative and by the end she has people wanting to do everything to protect the planet. Nobody wants to be told what to do. You have to encourage people to care and understand through stories.
Getting people to say ‘I didn’t realize…’ is what we aim for. The knowledge and footage we’ve gained is rare and I’m in the privileged position to amplify these stories. It is depressing, but It’s an opportunity for awareness. We need more Janes in the world and more people sharing stories that resonate and everyone can understand.
Would you be able to share a story that keeps you going and taking action in the fight against apathy and environmental destruction?
I travel 300 days a year and it’s exhausting, but at the back of mind is an 83 year old (Dr. Jane Goodall) woman kicking my butt doing the same, so I can’t complain. I also think about how the worst situations can inspire us to do incredible things. It’s close to inevitable that we are going to lose a majority coral in our lifetime. What does a worst case scenario look like in 20, 50, 100 years? That’s a dire and horrible vision. Every action we take as individuals adds up to be one step further away from that worst case scenario. Everything makes a difference, and we are already making a difference. There’s so much that can and needs to be done. We must do it. There’s no alternative.