Shortlisted last year for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, the critically acclaimed Chasing Ice was by far the most existentially devastating documentary of 2012. But its viscerally emotional vistas and Manhattan-sized collapses were passed over by the Academy this year in favor of five other films, none of which have to do with what Chasing Ice director Jeff Orlowski told me was “the most important issue we’re ever going to have to deal with as a civilization.”
“A nomination would be an incredible longshot,” Orlowski told me by phone as 2012 came to a close. “But our hope is that it would bring a lot of significant attention to climate change, because this is the issue of our time.”
Fast forward a few months later, and you’ll find an Academy more captivated by documentaries about intractable, important conflicts. But in the planetary big picture, they are dwarfed by the exponential ravages of global warming dramatically shown in Chasing Ice, which documents National Geographic photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, whose embedded time-lapse cameras visualized astounding Arctic ice loss for the world to see. In formal cinematic terms, it easily competes with the films that leapt off the shortlist and into the Oscars proper.
In terms of bringing invaluable awareness and mobilization — to say nothing of apocalyptic entertainment — to an American public and government waking way too slowly to the mammoth environmental challenge of our time, Chasing Ice remains peerless. After all, it was only a few years ago that both the Academy and attending talent gushed over Best Documentary winner An Inconvenient Truth, whose charismatic lead Al Gore argued during an acceptance speech with director Davis Guggenheim that, “We need to solve the climate crisis. It’s not a political issue; it’s a moral issue.”
The moral and political weight of Chasing Ice was apparent even to followers of climate change deniers like Fox News. In last year’s viral YouTube clip “Chasing Ice, Changing Lives,” one shaken Bill O’Reilly viewer vocally and vigorously changed her mind on global warming. “That’s what we’re seeing on a daily basis,” Orlowski added. “People come to us and tell us the film changed their lives.”
But don’t call the Academy’s oversight of the deserving Chasing Ice an Oscar snub, as Monty Python grad Eric Idle recently reminded me over Twitter. The film secured an Original Song nomination for “Before My Time,” from composer J. Ralph, who also created the documentary’s haunting score. One of only three documentary songs ever nominated — including An Inconvenient Truth’s “I Need to Wake Up,” which won Melissa Etheridge an Oscar for Original Song — the visibility of “Before My Time” was perhaps enhanced by accompaniment from acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell and vocalist Scarlett Johansson, whom you may have heard of.
“I am profoundly honored to receive a nomination, especially for this documentary,” Ralph told me this week, as the Oscar ceremony ramped up with buzz on whether Johansson would perform the song. “I was really inspired by the images and wanted to write a song that created a hypnotic and transportive experience with the images. Something that could allow the listener to absorb and reflect on all that they had seen in the film, as if Scarlett was singing to each person individually,” he says. “I can only hope that the visibility of the nomination brings more awareness to climate change and helps people feel the magnitude of what is happening to the planet.” And while this seems like a tall order, “the reality is we don’t need much change,” Orlowski says. “All we need to change is where our energy comes from.”