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by Anna Turns
Following his shocking photographs of dead albatross chicks and the diet of plastic that killed them, Chris Jordan’s new film is a call to action to repair our broken relationship with planet Earth.
We are living in a plastic age and the solutions may seem glaringly obvious, so why aren’t all 7.6 billion of us already doing things differently? Shocking statistics don’t guarantee effective change. So what’s the alternative? American photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan believes the focus should be on forcing people to have a stronger emotional engagement with the problems plastic causes. His famous photographs of dead albatross chicks and the colourful plastic they have ingested serve as a blunt reminder that the planet is in a state of emergency.
While making his feature-length film Albatross, Jordan considered Picasso’s approach: “The role of the artist is to respect you, help you connect more deeply, and then leave it up to you to decide how to behave.”
Most nature documentaries devote their final few minutes to hopeful solutions, but Jordan avoids this. He simply shines a light on the crisis facing the huge colonies of Laysan albatrosses on the remote Pacific island of Midway. “There’s something so archetypal about these legendary birds and seeing bright colours of ocean plastic against dead sterility is a powerful symbol for our human culture right now. We’re in a state of emotional bankruptcy,” says Jordan.
“This material lasts forever, yet we throw it away after a single use. But it’s not as simple as inspiring individuals to make small changes. We have to acknowledge that individuals cannot make a difference,” Jordan says. “When 100 million people decide to do something differently, THAT is when real change happens.”
Jordan first visited Midway in September 2009, when the albatrosses were soaring above the waves, far out to sea – all he saw for two weeks were tens of thousands of dead chicks. “It was devastating and depressing and I questioned how to get to a place of hope from there.” When he acknowledged that this eerily silent scene was part of a much bigger story, he resolved to return to Midway and was greeted by “a deafening cacophony of a million creatures singing and dancing all day and all night”.
Jordan is fascinated with these majestic birds. With no natural predators on Midway, Laysan albatrosses show no fear of humans, so his footage provides an authentic bird’s-eye view: “Albatrosses are so mysterious because they haven’t been on our radar. They live in places humans just don’t go – yet when we look closely, they are unbelievably magnificent,” he says.
Albatross is slow-paced, poignant and poetic. Lying somewhere between arthouse film and narrative documentary, it was eight years in the making; Jordan spent 94 days on Midway over the course of eight visits. His lens lingers on moments of natural beauty, tuning into their behaviour and losing track of time. Midway is a tiny outpost in the middle of the world’s largest ocean, 2,000 miles from the nearest continent and halfway between North America and Asia. “Midway’s name also describes the place that humanity finds itself, midway to its own destruction. But at the halfway point, everything can change – at half-time, a football coach tells his team that the game is not over yet.”
Jordan muses that albatrosses – with a brain the size of a walnut – experience the passage of time more slowly than we do. He films their bonding ritual in slow motion, focusing on the dedication between males and females. These bonds last a lifetime, sometimes more than 60 years. Wisdom, the world’s oldest tagged bird, is 67 and still successfully breeding: an amazing feat, considering that so many chicks die of dehydration and malnourishment, overheating or storm exposure.
“They are loving, sensitive and graceful – when you look at any creature this closely, it becomes amazing,” says Jordan, who believes we would fall in love with any animal if we only stopped to look at them with a similar childlike sense of awe. After five months, the fluffball chicks develop into comic, goofy-footed fledglings ready to take flight and begin their first 10,000 mile-long feeding frenzy over the open ocean. But some fail to take to the skies and the resulting deaths are often slow and painful.
The odds are clearly stacked against the birds but it’s difficult to assess the exact impacts of such widespread plastic pollution. According to Beth Flint, a biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the biggest threats to Midway’s albatrosses are rising sea levels, increased storms and temperature changes. Yet plastic is found in every single albatross bolus or regurgitated mass of squid beaks that chicks produce. Scientists working across the north-western Hawaiian islands also found that more than 97% of dead Laysan albatross chicks – and more than 89% dead adult birds – contained plastic in their stomachs, so high incidence is undeniable.
Although his film highlights the ubiquity of plastic, Jordan insists Albatross isn’t purely about plastic pollution; it’s about our broken relationship with planet Earth. “This is a grief ritual. My intent is to help viewers reconnect on a universal level with living beings,” says Jordan, whose mother died of pancreatic cancer while he was making the film. “Grief happens when we are losing love and it liberates us to feel it fully and therefore we can arrive home back to our core state of wisdom. Here, nothing stands in our way.”
Twelve years ago, ex-BBC wildlife camerawoman Rebecca Hosking filmed the pioneering Message in the Waves, a conservation documentary about surfers and scientists trying to protect Hawaii’s wildlife. In 2007, she campaigned to make Modbury in Devon the UK’s first ever plastic bag-free town after she returned from filming these same albatrosses. The anti-plastics movement has made progress since then but Hosking says there is still a long way to go: “Some might argue that traditional natural history films made since the 1970s haven’t worked – they haven’t triggered a revolution or dramatic change. Perhaps we need something more emotive to shock us into action.”
Hosking remembers walking through the albatross colonies, seeing dead chicks on the ground: “Midway was a US naval air station and now it feels like a postwar battlefield, with dead albatrosses juxtaposed against old military buildings. Now, the war is against plastic and albatrosses are the casualties on the frontline.”
Hosking doesn’t have a problem with Jordan’s rather anthropomorphic depiction of the birds: “You can’t say these animals aren’t sentient, and Jordan builds up the loving relationship of the mating birds quite beautifully – he refers to couples rather than pairs, and babies not chicks, but it’s not overly sentimental.” She continues: “Any parent wants to provide for their baby, and albatross go to such great lengths to feed their young. But they’re feeding them sharp, toxic plastic because they have mistaken it for multicoloured squid or cuttlefish near the surface of the ocean; it’s horrendous.”
Hosking remembers scientists collecting toothbrushes, lighters, toys, bottletops, biros, even the fish-shaped soy sauce bottles that come with takeaway sushi: “It’s all stuff we use every day and it’s unbelievable what these birds can fit in their gullets – one had swallowed a whole inkjet cartridge.”
Jordan’s call to action is to love the albatross more: “I want people to watch this film and feel sadness and rage and realise that comes from a place of love. Don’t pull the plug out of the bathtub just yet; don’t let all that raw emotion drain away. Once you feel love, you can be more courageous and make more radical choices.”
Albatross is released nationwide on 22 April, albatrossthefilm.com