Boulder-based filmmaker Jeff Orlowski has a new documentary out on Netflix, The Social Dilemma, about the tech industry—specifically the companies associated with social media. You can probably guess the topics of interest: Undermined democratic processes and the rise of conspiracy theories and radical thinking, the increase of screen time of teens and pre-teens and the decrease of self-esteem, and advertisements galore.
If you haven’t seen The Social Dilemma, you might be thinking, “I know all of this already.” You probably do, but I’d be willing to bet that you don’t, you suspect it. Yes, you don’t need a documentary to tell you that social media is corrupting society around you. You might even be fully aware of how platforms use us as the products. Maybe it’s even the deal you consciously cut with your account: You can have my info, just let me see what my grandkids are up to. Most of us do. But what makes The Social Dilemma work is how it compiles images to hammer its point home. Uprisings around the globe and a man who attacked pizzeria workers because he believed a child trafficking conspiracy take the abstract “I know all of this” and concretize it into something chilling.
Orlowski achieved a similar feat with his previous doc, Chasing Coral, which documents how coral bleaching around the world is one of our best indicators of climate change. You probably know that climate change has adverse effects on ecosystems worldwide, but it’s something else to see it. I talked to Orlowski about the doc prior to its run at CU-Boulder’s International Film Series back in 2017. From Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 4, “Out of sight, out of mind no more.”
In the last 30 years, we have lost 50% of the world’s coral. This loss is far from arbitrary, and Chasing Coral—the latest documentary from Boulder-based filmmaker Jeff Orlowski—is the photographic evidence people need to emotionally attach to a cause.
The film opens with Richard Vevers, a former London ad-man who grew tired of selling toilet paper and decided to turn his attention to the ocean. Vevers’ out-of-the-box approach led him to partner with The Ocean Agency to create a massive survey of corals around the world and a Google Street View for coral reefs in the process.
While mapping, Vevers noticed some of the coral were turning bright white. The phenomenon is known as “bleaching” and is symptomatic of rising ocean temperatures—essentially the last gasp before the coral dies.
Bleaching is a by-product of global warming, but since it occurs below the surface, it is, as Vevers says, “an out of sight, out of mind” problem. Ever the ad-man, Vevers realized that to bring awareness to the problem, he would need photographic proof. Enter Jeff Orlowski and company.
Stanford graduate Orlowski made his name with Chasing Ice, a film about glacier photographer James Balog and his journey to document disappearing glaciers. Orlowski followed Balog from the Arctic to Boulder, where he settled and founded Exposure Labs, a company that maximizes the impact of the documentary by combining powerful storytelling with a clear and urgent message. It worked, and Chasing Ice went on to receive an Emmy for outstanding nature programming.
“Sometimes it’s hard to watch climate change films,” Orlowski says. “They feel like homework. What we’re trying to do is to tell a compelling emotional story.
“It is our belief that if you hook people with a really compelling story [it will be] seen more widely and be more impactful than if we were just trying to club you over the head with an environmental message.”
Orlowski describes both Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral as “adventure stories,” which goes a long way to explain why these two movies are easily the most compelling documentaries about climate change.
“[Chasing Coral] is a team’s firsthand experience of what we’ve seen,” Orlowski says.
Divided into three acts, Chasing Coral hooks viewers with Richard Vevers’ discovery about coral bleaching. The second act provides all the necessary information viewers need to understand what they are seeing.
For the third act, Orlowski takes this information and filters it neatly through Chasing Coral team member and coral nerd Zach Rago, a Coloradan who’s devoted his life to the study of coral.
“He’s the one who gave me a very different perspective of the issue,” Orlowski says. “Through Zach’s care and passion for the coral, you get a sense of what this means to him, and hopefully that rubs off a little bit.”
That hook is the documentation of something we’ve lost and are continuing to lose. “There’s a lot of confusion about climate change in this country,” Orlowski says. “This is an incredibly urgent issue, and there’s a huge imbalance between what the scientists think about this issue and what the general public thinks about this issue.
“We’re hoping this film can be a tool for people to understand.”
Similar to what Orlowski did with Chasing Ice and Exposure Labs, he hopes to do with Chasing Coral. He is currently working on a campaign to get as many people as possible to see the film. “The more unexpected the messenger is on this issue, the more impact we can have in shifting mindsets across the country,” Orlowski says.
The success of that shifting mindset will begin with each individual viewer. Boulder audiences are lucky enough to be able to see Chasing Coral, for free, at the University of Colorado’s International Film Series. Orlowski and special guests will present the movie and try to motivate the audience into action.
“And maybe [the audience is] motivated in a different way to care about this incredibly beautiful and delicate ecosystem that is facing really rapid changes,” Orlowski says. “If you know nothing about the ocean and nothing about coral reefs, hopefully, you’ll see this film and be moved.”