Beauty. Without human intervention, we imagine, the natural world would be filled with it — birds flying over the sea at sunset, water glistening below. When tourists frame a scene from a vacation site, they’ll crop out the cell phone tower, garbage truck, and the trash heap — the ugly underbelly of life on Earth.
But some environmentally aware artists, from whom we might expect beauty, focus their vision on the very detritus our civilization has produced and in their examination find beauty.
“Albatross,” a film by Chris Jordan, enchants the viewer with scenes of the white sea bird living on a marine sanctuary on the Hawaiian island of Midway. At the same time it tells the shocking story of baby birds that die when their bellies are filled with plastic —everything from cigarette lighters and syringes to credit cards. And it raises awareness of the human impact on the environment.
“Albatross” is a featured selection of this year’s Princeton Environmental Film Festival (PEFF), and Jordan, the Seattle-based artist who wrote, directed, edited, and narrated the film, will be present for a post-screening conversation Saturday, April 14, screening at 7 p.m. The festival runs for one week starting Sunday, April 8.
One doesn’t have to have seen the films screened at the PEFF over the past 12 years to know we have been destroying our planet and creating things like the Pacific trash vortex, the enormous gyre of plastic and chemical sludge trapped by the currents in the central North Pacific Ocean. We have said “enough” more than enough times — in fact “Enough” was even the theme of the festival one year. And yet we continue to contribute to a system that produces unmitigated waste. If ever there were a single thing that says “enough,” it is the sight of an albatross’s intestines filled with bottle caps and other debris it has mistaken for nourishment.
The film opens with still shots of birds who have died and begun to decompose, but not the plastic contents of their bellies because, as we know, plastic lives forever (that’s even the title of another film in the festival). As horrifying as it may sound, Jordan has composed his images with beauty. He first came to Midway Island as a still photographer documenting the tragedy. As stills turn to video, we see the viridian water lapping at the beach amid the tragedy, making it “a love story from our time,” as described in promotional materials. “This is our culture turned inside out,” says the voice-over narrator.
We are brought into intimate contact with the bird, within touching distance of its webbed feet, hooked bill, and dark eyes. So close are we, it almost looks as if the albatross is gesturing to say, “Come in and stay a while.” They appear to move in slow motion. We learn that, with their smaller brains (the size of a walnut), they can think faster than we do although they may experience the passage of time more slowly —they see us moving in slow motion. The albatross, we are told, has no natural predator and is therefore unafraid; it has a sense of trust that feels like being in paradise. They have no fear of humans. As such, Jordan can bring us so close that it’s as if we’re seeing through their eyes, getting inside their minds.
“Midway holds the balance between beauty and destruction,” says the narrator. Midway is a former military base, now decaying. “It’s like being in a dream that contains the past and future at the same time.” There are concrete piers along the beach.
During his initial visit to document the cut-open belly contents, Jordan was struck by seeing tens of thousands of dead birds, but none alive. “I was interested in the symbolism of the plastic in their bellies as the broken relationship with the living world,” he said from his Seattle studio. When he returned to the island he met the living birds “and fell crazy in love.”
Some of Jordan’s previous photo and video-based projects include a rotating camel stomach that is a tangled mass of plastic bags, with an audio track of a Nepalese bell evoking a kind of vigil; photographic landscapes of cell phone, circuit board, cigarette butt, and other detritus graveyards; indigenous people in such regions as Kenya and the Maldives, where not only has the coral reef been bleached but the entire archipelago is in danger of being swept into the sea by the increased ferocity and frequency of storms; and a work that depicts 183,000 birds, equal to the estimated number of birds that die in the United States every day from exposure to agricultural pesticides, according to his website.
“I am appalled by these scenes, and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination,” he writes. “The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.
“The pervasiveness of our consumerism holds a seductive kind of mob mentality. Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences. I fear that in this process we are doing irreparable harm to our planet and to our individual spirits.”
Being up close with the albatross was, Jordan says, like being in paradise. “I was ecstatic. As a child, I always dreamed of going into the forest and talking to deer and squirrels. Being with these graceful and elegant beings who have no fear of us was profoundly disturbing and incredibly sad, seeing them come up to us, their bodies filled with plastic. It is our fault, and they didn’t know that.”
Jordan discovered that each bird has a slightly different personality. “Some don’t like us, they may snap at you with their beak — it’s their way of saying ‘please stay out of my face.’ Others look at us with a funny curious expression and walk closer, looking right into the camera, so beautiful and disarming.”
Each trip to the island enabled the cinematography crew to get closer so they could ultimately film the babies hatching. “We had to attune ourselves to what they were feeling. When they are anxious their body starts quivering. As you move closer they become anxious so you move away, they relax, then you move a bit closer until they stay relaxed. If you make direct eye contact they get anxious, so you look at them and then look away to let them know you’re not a threat.” Ultimately Jordan and his crew could get within an inch.
Drone cinematography was not yet available at the time of filming, and while an aerial shot of the island might have been nice, says Jordan, “I hate drones — they’re all the rage, but I find them invasive and that bothers me deeply.”
The voice Jordan narrates the film with conveys his personal sense of loss. Indeed in one touching scene we watch him mourning a bird. “Narrating was one of the most difficult parts of the project,” he says. He hated how he sounded during the first several attempts, and it took more than 50 recordings to get results he wanted. “I didn’t want to speak to the audience as a group, but I wanted to have you personally on the island, with me right behind your shoulder. You have your own experience with the birds, and I’m there as a guide to help you experience it more deeply.”
Jordan grew up in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, where his father was a fine art photographer and his mother a watercolor painter. And though “I learned tons from them and had the amazing good fortune to be surrounded by good energy,” after earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas in Austin, he pursued law school and a career in law. That brought him to Seattle, but in time he felt “I was quietly dying inside, feeling deeply unfulfilled. With the help of a good therapist I realized I was in danger of becoming an old person filled with regret.”
Although he had no formal training in fine art, photography, or film/video, Jordan — now in his 50s — says he has the equivalent of an MFA from all that he learned from his father, who was also a collector of fine art photographs. “I had a really good education in seeing.”
So “I left my law career with no safety net. I knew I had to do what I love.”
Jordan says “Albatross” is his “gift to world — I’m close to having to declare bankruptcy, but it feels like giving the film as a gift is part of the art. I can’t treat it like a commercial project. There’s nothing commercial about it. It came to me and changed my life. It’s been a spiritual experience to be with the birds, and I want to transfer that experience to the viewer — it was an easy choice to have given up money.”
As an artist, Jordan is a perfectionist. He tried working with an editor and narrator, but in order to fulfill his own vision he found he had to do the work himself. He learned editing from YouTube videos and spent two-and-a-half years in the studio to edit the eight-year project. There were eight trips to Midway, for a total of 94 days, and each trip to the island cost $50,000. Some of his videography crew volunteered their time. “I taught them to see through my eyes,” he says.
Jordan even served as the film’s sound designer. A musician as well as an artist, he composed and performed some of the music. In an unconventional way, he created the soundtrack first and then cut the film to the sound. “Real music is its own deep poetic art form with a story arc and I wanted to use pre-existing music that had those elements.”
He learned cinematography on the job from his good friend Jim Hurst, an Emmy-nominated cinematographer who also did the sound recording for “Albatross.”
There was some support from grants and foundations, but mostly “I bootstrapped it,” he says.
So just why, then, does the albatross eat plastic? “That’s the heart of the matter — they can’t know what plastic is,” says Jordan. “It’s what they do, fly out over the sea and scavenge bite-size pieces of anything that floats on the surface of water, from dead squid to tropical nuts from Madagascar covered with seaweed. They digest and cough out the rest, like an owl who will swallow a whole mouse, then cough out the bones and fur they cannot digest.
“Albatrosses don’t have the ability to distinguish what they should and shouldn’t eat. After a week foraging over the Pacific, when their belly is full, they return to the nest to feed their baby. The babies digest what they can but can’t digest plastic so it stays in their stomach until the belly is distended. When the entire cavity is filled and they can’t fit any more in, they starve to death. Or they may die from the toxicity or sharp pieces that poke through. Some are able to cough out the plastic and survive.”
Biologists have theories as to why some birds are more filled with plastic than others, Jordan says. They may take different routes foraging. Currents that carry plastic are not evenly distributed. Some birds may be attracted to colors that remind them of their favorite food. “An interesting and important part of the story is that they aren’t going extinct. Their population on the island is increasing. If they were going extinct, the entire conversation would be about saving them. That doesn’t make the story less tragic, but it is a symbol of the broken human relationship with the living world.
The expression “it’s like wearing an albatross around my neck” comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which a sailor who shoots a friendly albatross is forced to wear its carcass around his neck as punishment. It’s as if we humans are faced with confronting the tragedy of the plastic-filled life forms as punishment for not heeding the warnings about our wasteful ways.
“The way I look at it, there isn’t anything any individual can do,” Jordan continues. “Plastic in the ocean is a systemic problem like global climate change. I see ocean plastic as a deeper problem that resides in our culture. We think of the ocean plastic as an isolated problem, but just like the destruction of forests all these problems all related. This is my call to action, not tiny steps, but for us to see the story of Midway as a message about a sickness we all live. It can’t be solved overnight or by a simple gesture, it’s something much bigger and more systemic.
“As an American consumer myself,” he continues, “I am in no position to finger wag; but I do know that when we reflect on a difficult question in the absence of an answer, our attention can turn inward, and in that space may exist the possibility of some evolution of thought or action. So my hope is that (my work) can serve as portals to a kind of cultural self-inquiry. It may not be the most comfortable terrain, but I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness we at least know we are awake.”
Festival directors Susan Conlon and Kim Dorman, staff librarians at the Princeton Public Library, agree.
“Since the festival began conversations about the environment, people’s awareness, and the quality of the documentaries have increased,” Dorman says. “It’s not a weird fringe thing anymore. On the other hand we have a change in outlook and challenges in the post Obama era. People are fired up to take action toward what they care about. We often have people coming up to say how the festival has inspired them. One father told us his daughter was getting her Ph.D. in marine biology because of a film (“Sea Change”) she’d seen in the festival.”
“A lot of people have been affected, changing their behavior or attitudes, and are reinvigorated about doing the right thing,” says Dorman.
Conlon finds that people are less interested in framing their perceptions about whether they do or do not believe in climate change, but are more interested in knowing the reality. “Kim and I feel strongly about providing environmental literacy, education, and enlightenment in an entertaining way. It galvanizes everyone to work together, she says. “So many festivals ticket, but thanks to our sponsors we can offer a free and equitable opportunity to see these films.”
“Albatross” is a film Conlon and Dorman are especially excited about screening. “It totally informs how you see everything else. It’s painful but makes you a stronger person and open to making change,” says Conlon.
Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Additional screenings at Princeton Garden Theater, 160 Nassau Street; Friend Center, Princeton University; and Hopewell Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Sunday, April 8, through Sunday, April 15. For the full schedule of films and events, visit www.princetonlibrary.org/peff.
Films with a New Jersey connection include: “Saving the Great Swamp,” “Creature Show: Bobcats,” “Aiden’s Butterflies,” “Hope on the Hudson,” “Oyster Farmers,” “500 Acres of Controversy,” and “Riverkeeper.”
#b#Princeton Public Library#/b#
Sunday, April 8: “Where the Wind Blew,” 7 p.m.
Thursday, April 12: “Valve Turners, ” 2 p.m.; “The Reluctant Radical,” 2:15 p.m.; “Lost in Light,” 7 p.m.; “Saving the Great Swamp: Battle to Defeat Jetport,” 7:05 p.m.
Friday, April 13: “From Seed to Seed,” noon; “Evolution of Organic,” 2 p.m.; “Plastic Is Forever,” 4 p.m.
Saturday, April 14: “Creature Show: Bobcats,” noon; “Aiden’s Butterflies,” 1 p.m.; “Hope on the Hudson,” 2 p.m.; “The New Fire,” 4 p.m.
Sunday, April 15: “The Oyster Farmers,” 11 a.m.; “500 Acres of Controversy: Saving Petty’s Island,” 1:15 p.m.; “Riverkeeper,” 2 p.m.; “United by Water,” 2:30 p.m.; “Dolores,” 4 p.m.
Monday, April 9: “Jane,” 7 p.m.
Tuesday, April 10: “Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf,” 7 p.m.
Tuesday, April 10: “Beyond Fordlandia,” 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, April 11: “Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?” 4:30 p.m.; “The Iron Triangle,” 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 12: “Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock,” 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 14: “Albatross,” 7 p.m.
Friday, April 13: “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste,” 5 p.m.