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‘Chasing Coral’ Shows the Horrors of Climate Change So Well, Its Filmmakers Thought They Had PTSD

Where to Stream

Chasing Coral

If you told me a couple of months ago that I would watch a documentary that would make me want to cry over coral, I would have called you a liar. Welcome to 2017, friends, where anything is possible and Netflix’s latest documentary about dying coral won this year’s Sundance Audience Award and will make you genuinely upset.

Directed by Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Coral is a more compelling and compassionate documentary than any film about coral has a right to be. The documentary starts on a word of caution about the state of the ocean floor. Orlowski and his crew are warned about the deteriorating state of once prominent reefs, and the introduction is filled with statistics and intelligent talking head clips about theses reefs’ destruction. However, Chasing Coral is perhaps more than anything else a parable about how stories and images are more impactful than numbers. The crew and the documentary itself shakes off these numbers as they start to explain the importance of undersea reefs.

Chasing Coral is filled with some truly gorgeous footage of all sorts of coral. In many scenes, it’s a documentary that could play alongside Planet Earth’s aquatic sequel, Blue Planet. That’s what makes what is to come all the more horrifying. The central story of the documentary follows Orlowski and his crew as they return to a reef they filmed just a year ago. What was once an ecosystem that was filled with vibrant reefs that were home to a myriad of sea creatures is now nothing but skeletons. Watching the crew swim through fields of graying undersea fossils feels very much like walking through a graveyard. It’s spooky and deeply unsettling.

The film could have taken the dry explanatory route of so many other documentaries, showing off this ecological nightmare before diving into what caused it and what people can do to prevent further destruction. Instead, Chasing Coral pivots a bit in its second act, and the documentary is far more stronger for it. The film takes the time to show how this transformation has affected the film’s crew, and no one is more affected by the white, skeletal reefs than camera technician Zack Rago.

Rago wasn’t originally part of the project. He was a technician who came onboard to assist the filmmakers’, but no one knew of Rago’s love of coral until after he was working on the documentary. Rago loves coral with the deep devotion of a true fan, even going as far as to have tanks full of coral, with no fish, in his home. Listening to Rago explain how corals are both creatures and systems is oddly engaging in only the way listening to a compelling person’s true passion can be. On the flip side, seeing his shock over the state of the coral hurts.

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In an interview with The Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski said that both he and Rago considered seeking out treatment for PTSD. Orlowski said he felt bad about considering it, fearing that using the terminology PTSD would be downplaying what actual soldiers have gone through, but the filming left both men depressed. “But this was a legitimately traumatic event that Zack and I experienced: Over the course of two months, we slowly watched — firsthand — an ecosystem die. That messes with your head,” he said.

It’s because the film is anchored to such a shocking story and such a genuine reaction that its message works. As Chasing Coral explains the effects of climate change to these organisms, the film never feels overly dramatic — a trap environmental documentaries in particular often fall into. Instead, Chasing Coral makes you feel vaguely sick, especially when it explains how the destruction of coral could lead to the elimination of undersea ecosystems and human starvation. If you’re looking for a good documentary this weekend, don’t look past Chasing Coral. However, prepare to feel vaguely depressed.

Stream Chasing Coral on Netflix

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