The following article was written by Robert McTavish as part of a series of articles about filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival on March 4-6, 2016.
Filmmaker Sarah Robertson and editor Jennifer Abbott will be attending the festival and leading a discussion about the film following the screening.
When filmmaker Sarah Robertson began work on a wide-ranging project dealing with the future of the Arctic, she quickly realized her first sub-topic was just the tip of its own iceberg. All of a sudden she was racing to make a different film, about pollution issues in global shipping, and to finish in time to screen at the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. “Some people deep in the emissions talks didn’t even know about the issues!” she says, while the industry’s huge fleet and increasing impact on the north make it a crisis hiding in plain sight.
Sea Blind is the resulting documentary, and it’s message is unforgettable. More than 100,000 ships carry 90% of world trade every day, and just seventeen of the largest ones emit more sulfur and black carbon than all the cars on the planet. As pollution furthers global warming, the arctic ice recedes and is creating a global short cut – including the fabled Northwest passage. But faster and cheaper is not necessarily better because shipping is one of the least regulated industries in the world while the ships burn the dirtiest fuel on the planet. With all eyes on land-based emissions, the sea has few regulations and the Arctic has none. As more and more ships ply the northern seas, the status quo must go.
Yet how to get that message across? “The biggest challenge was to learn,” says Robertson. “It was a challenge for me because it was very technical, chockablock full with information and a huge amount of research to get a handle on and pare down for people.” This the film does well, including an ordered breakdown of how ships’ black carbon hits the snow as soot and speeds up the melt – a 40% increase in Greenland alone that could be avoided with cleaner fuel initiatives. Of course, stunning northern landscapes and inventive graphics also bring a ringing clarity to the argument.
A good story helps too, and this comes in the form of environmental journalist and explorer Bernice Notenboom’s failed 2014 attempt to ski from the North Pole to Canada. “I’ve always loved the imagery of pulling the 200 pound sled, and thought it was a great juxtaposition with the fact of shipping over the globe,” says Robertson. With Notenboom’s sled unable to go on, the camera’s gaze turns seaward. Robertson says the Arctic will never be the same: “How to get our stuff through has always been the challenge. But now we are at the cusp of being able to do it. After three to four hundred years of arctic exploration, an era has gone by. So what’s next?”
Of course more than the arctic is at stake with climate change, and slowing the melt will buy us some very valuable time. “One interesting thing in the film is that everyone is implicated,” says Robertson. “It’s a global problem, and people are surpised by that. It actually does have something to do with them.” She notes that while shipping firms are beginning to address health and pollution concerns, public pressure through spending habits and a push for official regulation are needed here at home, “Because the shipping industry changes very slowly, but by being more conscious the consumer can effect change very fast.”
Now back at her home in Victoria, Robertson continues work with Notenboom on the original project, called Arctic March, and the trips to the far north continue. But there is time to screen Sea Blind at this year’s Salt Spring Film Festival, and to continue the dialogue with the audience she works so hard to reach. “Once we start telling these stories, people have the chance to understand and get involved,” she says. “There are solutions out there!”
And Sea Blind was co-written and edited by multi-award-winning, Salt Spring-based filmmaker Jennifer Abbott, who’ll be joining us for the screening along with Sarah. She is best known as one of the directors and editor of The Corporation. Most recently, she co-directed Us and Them, a portrait of 4 homeless and addicted street people. Jenn is especially interested in creating emotionally powerful works that inspire people to think differently about our world. Currently, she is in development with the NFB on a documentary about the psychology of climate change.