The Planet Is Changing: Jeff Orlowski and ‘Chasing Ice’ Travel to Colombia

Jeff Orlowski

Jeff Orlowski is an American filmmaker and the director and cinematographer of Sundance Excellence in Cinematography Award Documentary winning film ‘Chasing Ice.’ He joined Film Forward in Colombia to screen and discuss his latest film.

The security brief from the State Department was thoroughly frightening: Narco and FARC groups are responsible for many of the local bombings. Be aware of criminals who show false police identification. The drug scopolamine—which works as a truth serum and blocks your memory—is administered in liquid, spray, and powder forms and is used to rob unsuspecting victims. It didn’t help that we were picked up from the airport in a bulletproof van, displaying damage from a shotgun blast on the front windshield.

But despite these remnants of the old Colombia from the ’80s and ’90s, the Colombia we experienced with Film Forward was enchanting and captivating—and much safer than the security brief led us to believe. And our journey around the country put art in the spotlight, allowing us to use film as a medium of cultural exchange and share stories with people who typically would never see our films.

I joined Nancy Buirski, the director of The Loving Story, and members of the Sundance Institute and Sundance Channel Global on a weeklong trip around Colombia. We started in the capital city of Bogota, then went to Bucaramanga, Medellin, and back to Bogota. We averaged 1-2 screenings every day of both The Loving Story and our film Chasing Ice. We screened in grade schools, colleges and community centers, in beautiful cinemas and classrooms turned into makeshift theaters.

Since Chasing Ice premiered at Sundance in 2012, our team has participated in many Q&A’s around the country—so many, in fact, that they’ve become somewhat routine. But before heading to Colombia, I had no idea what to expect. Aside from the risk of things being lost in translation, what would these students ask? What would they be concerned about? Would they understand everything in the film? Would they even care about climate change?

I often asked the audience a couple of questions to gauge their perspective on the issue. How many people think climate change is a hoax or a lie? No hands went up. How many people think climate change is real and happening? Virtually every hand went up. Many believed that it was both due to man-made causes as well as natural variation.

Once in a while, somebody would say that they knew someone who thought that climate change was completely due to a natural cycle and has no human causes, but that was a very rare perspective. These audiences almost always tied climate change into a bigger issue of environmental stewardship. And they always had stories of how it related to their own lives.

In the rural town of Bucaramanga, Canadian companies are doing extensive gold mining that is affecting local water supply. People are being forced out of their homes due to the mining. At the top of a mountain, they told us that the temperatures used to be much colder there. This town was always considered a very cold area, and they have never experienced as much warmth as they had in the last decade. The principal of a school was wearing slacks and a button-down, and emphatically stressed that he could never dress like this before—growing up, he always had to wear a jacket, and now this is the new normal.

At one screening, a panel of local scientists who told us about how local rainfall patterns are changing, frog species are dying, how in the last few years they’ve had extreme and atypical drought and flood events, and how those floods have effected local neighborhoods. These communities know—intuitively—that climate change is happening. To some degree, they didn’t need Chasing Ice to inform them of how the planet is changing—they’re living it and experiencing it every day.

But one of the most interesting questions we received had nothing to do with the film. We were often asked “Why are you here?” As in, why did Film Forward choose to bring these filmmakers to visit their tiny little town? They seemed surprised that we would even consider visiting them. And I think there’s nothing that answers that better than a Facebook post made by a young girl. She saw Chasing Ice one night, and shared this message with her friends:

As global warming continues to increase, the glacier retreat is an imminent danger we face. The use of fossil fuel is alarming. We depend on the ruling powers who control this issue at their to dictate our global economy. Our grain of sand isn’t to use the cart, for example. The most powerful governments have the last word and we are crossing our arms. TAKE CARE OF OUR PLANET! — Alexandriita Garciia

This is why we went there.

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