On Friday I posted a giveaway for Antarctica Ice and Sky, a documentary that shows a stirring portrait of French glaciologist Claude Lorius whose groundbreaking research in Antarctica gave us the first clear evidence of man-made global climate change. The hubby and I hope to see it soon – we are awaiting a Roku thingie for our TV so we can download it and watch it.
Musicbox Films has sent an interview with the director of the movie, Mr. Luc Jacquet. He also directed The March of the Penguins. I hope you enjoy reading this.
How did the film come about?
It was when I met Claude Lorius at the French Geographical Institute, in October 2011. We’d already heard about each other, and we instantly hit it off. We’d lived through the same adventures, only forty years apart. We talked about how we experienced Antarctica, what it feels like to retreat from the world. We realized that we were using the same words to express it, that we were filled with the same fascination for this part of the planet. Also, I’d been blown away by his book Voyage dans l’Anthropocène, which I consider to be some of the best science writing of recent times. And then he said: “Why don’t we make a film together?” How did you react? First of all I was incredibly moved. Considering Claude’s age I understood it was now or never, that he could leave us at any moment and we risked losing his living testimonial of a historic moment, where humanity suddenly awoke to our impact on the planet, which Claude had documented and was the first to share. My first thought was to “save” his testimonial. I wanted to hear Claude tell his version of the story. It was also a way for me to get to know the man in-depth, and to assess the potential of his story for a film. I was aware that I absolutely had to hear him tell it, in his own words, his own path and how, thanks to glaciology, he had contributed to changing the way we relate to the world. As a result, I took ten days to do a first series of filmed interviews, making sure I had quality image and sound. When he told me he’d soon be 80 years old, I knew we had to celebrate in the Antarctic! And did your plan work out? Yes, thanks to Wild-Touch and its early partners we were able to organize a first expedition to the Antarctic and continue our earlier interview. We designed a snowsuit for Claude that would both look good on film and be practical in the extreme shooting conditions. When we dressed Claude in the famous blue jacket and black pants and I saw him in those particular surroundings, there was a sort of shock as if the figure he embodies, the powerfully evocative suit and the environment had collided. Suddenly, through my discovering Claude’s “role” in situ, he took on a universal character in my eyes. At that moment the film’s angle became clear: a man who has devoted his life to science makes one last trip around the world to observe how that which he once predicted has come to be. An opportunity for him to retrace his adventurous life. Did you discover a new facet of Claude Lorius? I realized the man was a fighter. Despite the horrific conditions of the shoot, the freezing weather and his weak physical state, he was an adventurer to bone, ready for anything. I even got him to climb up onto the wreck of a whaling ship. I realized he had uncommon willpower, forged over years and years of endurance and suffering. As a matter of fact, as we headed north for Ushuaia, he told me: “Antarctica, I can come back whenever I want.” He’s incurably passionate about the continent! As a result, I told myself we needed to take it further… hence the idea of this 80-year-old character travelling around the world. Claude divides his life into time spent on expeditions – his youth – time spent on research – his forties and fifties – time spent on scientific committees and policies – his mature years up to retirement – a time for rewards – after retirement – and a time for transmission. I went with the notion of testament, taking Claude where, thirty years earlier, he knew decisive events were going to occur. Rather than being content with talk, I wanted to direct the scene so that we’d actually witness what he’d predicted.
Who worked with you to produce the film?
First, my association Wild-Touch and our early partners Aster, Big Bang, la Compagnie du Ponant, which helped with the project development and initial scouting. Eskwad and Richard Grandpierre later enabled us to develop the full scope of the project cinematographically. That was the first spark. Wild-Touch had already done all of the research and development. After that, it was truly a bilateral collaboration between Wild-Touch and Eskwad.
To what do you attribute your fascination with the Antarctic?
It’s an addiction. At the age of 23, I left to spend 14 months in the Antarctic, and have been going ever since. I’d explain it through the power of the landscapes and the elements. It’s that experiencing of a blizzard, which is the ultimate confrontation with the forces of nature and survival. In that kind of environment, the only law that matters is staying alive through a sense of fellowship. You have to go to extreme places to discover that. There are places on Earth where cheating isn’t an option and I like that. It’s the authenticity of the people who venture there.
It would seem that for you, men like Claude Lorius and Francis Hallé, to whom you paid tribute with ONCE UPON A FOREST, are true heroes.
Absolutely. Creating the association Wild-Touch was a way for me to put myself at their service. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky that my first film, MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, was seen by 35 million people and won an Academy Award®. Today I want to express my gratitude. For me, going into this territory is following my natural inclination since I’m an ecologist by training. I know how to identify changes in such or such a landscape, and I try to alert public opinion through the medium of cinema. My goal is to provide a sort of megaphone for the people who are producing knowledge that isn’t being heard.
In the 1970s, humans still believed themselves to be all-powerful, that they could achieve anything given enough money and technology. Yet already, Lorius and other scientists were sounding the alarm and proving that progress has a price, which is the destruction of our environment.
Whereas in ONCE UPON A FOREST it’s as if trees tame time, in ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY, the impression is that ice is the keeper of memory.
Time is our main point of reference. Yet it’s perfectly subjective, linked to our own perception. Very long or very short time frames, for instance, go over our heads. I love using film to change our bearings with regard to space and time, offering the viewer new worlds and new realities. Usually we only consider time in terms of a human lifespan or a political timeframe. Nature, on the other hand, doesn’t follow man’s timescale. A tree’s lifetime is of the order of 800 years. Changing how we relate to time and space also shifts our perception of reality. It can’t be seen on the scale of one’s own human temporality, but working on the issue of time makes it possible to lift certain veils and see the world differently, to be awestruck in the revelation of the infinitely great or infinitely small.
Claude Lorius’ discoveries read like premonitions. Could it be said that you’ve made a film about a prophet of humanity?
Claude isn’t a prophet in the sense that he won’t interpret any phenomenon that hasn’t been proven scientifically. But when he published his three, now historical, papers in Nature magazine in 1985, he demonstrated irrefutably the connection between the greenhouse gases emitted by humans, and the climate. In doing so, he opened the door to a whole new major science that made predictions possible, and sounded the global alarm. But Claude never made the transition to politics. He always kept to the production of knowledge, and that’s why we know so little about him today. Nothing prophetic about it. I prefer the word visionary. What he has demonstrated all throughout his career is intuition. His colleagues say: “Claude never made a wrong decision in terms of his scientific choices.” For a man like Lorius, as long as a “fact” has not been proven scientifically, he won’t speak up about it. And at WildTouch, we aim to ensure mediation between this kind of scientist and the public sphere.
Can you tell us briefly the story of the snowflake containing the DNA of humanity?
For me, it’s more the story of a man and his quest for the invisible. It’s because he looked at the snowflake that it took on such importance. When Lorius began, he had no idea what he’d discover. It could have been nothing. But at each step of his discoveries, he had the genius to take the right direction. So the film recounts a two-fold adventure, that of a man and that of a certain knowledge. There’s no predestination in the approach. There’s no predestination in research: the great scientists would never have accomplished their discoveries if they’d set out with a specific goal in mind. There’s nothing simply intentional or utilitarian about science. In the beginning, Claude just wanted to know why it was cold in the Antarctic! What interested me about his story is that it’s an epic in the Greek sense of the word. When Ulysses went to war with the Trojans, he had no idea of what lay ahead. By the time he returned home, he’d experienced such extraordinary events that it elevated him above the rest of humanity. That’s what makes a hero.
In the film, you show how humans surpass themselves in adversity.
When you’re in the Antarctic, there are an incalculable number of things you have to give up. Once you’ve done it, you know you’re able to go a long way. You’ve pushed the limits so far that you experience absolute trust in your own endurance. It’s fundamental both in terms of relating to others, and of selfconfidence. When you’ve spent 120 days in the cold, without warm water, living in harmony with your companions, all the while producing revolutionary scientific results, you know what you’re made of.
In your film, are archives the material of the story the way ice is an element of human heritage?
When I began to delve into Claude Lorius’ background and work, I came across the famous photos of this 23-year-old man in Antarctica, and I thought it would be fantastic to tell the story of his life, entirely devoted to science, by following the twists and turns of his expeditions and major discoveries. That provided the narrative arc. Then the challenge was to find the footage. That was the start of an extraordinary treasure hunt. We went to his old lab in Grenoble and found a roll of 8mm film that hadn’t been developed. The whole story of the film lies in this quest, which took us from the great French polar scientists, who carried a camera with them on their expeditions, to American researchers, with whom Claude worked, and to Moscow, where Claude had developed strong ties with Russian scientists. In all, it took us a year to track down the archives we needed for the film.
The archives don’t come off as a compilation; they really seem an integral part of the narrative.
That’s what I love about film: using images for what they are and what they have to say. When I shoot in nature, I provoke situations, and nothing makes me happier than when a situation escapes me and expresses something even better than what I had in mind.
The archives arouse intense emotions in the viewer…
During the sound editing in particular, we took special care to eliminate the film’s “archival” dimension, preferring to give the feeling that we are with Claude constantly, experiencing life in Antarctica alongside him. I wanted us to be looking over his shoulder for the sixty years of his life that he spent there. The sound was designed to enhance a sense of reality and shared sensations.
In the beginning, the footage was silent: there was no element of sound. I added my own sensations, using the “music” of those who go to Antarctica. We don’t necessarily hear what’s said. It’s more a matter of impressionistic, evocative sound than of naturalistic sound. It’s sound that adds depth and enriches the footage.
Can you talk about the editing?
It was really complex, because the footage came in little by little. The through line was Lorius’ quest with, as landmarks, the major events of his life and the discoveries that led to the climate alert of 1985, published in the scientific journal Nature.
The narrative arc took constant reworking, since we were integrating footage that was coming to us little by little. We had episodes that were really well documented, like the American expeditions, but other episodes were much more sparsely recorded. So we needed to create a unity and find more footage by looking in new directions. For instance, when Claude’s brother died, his sister-in-law agreed to explore her personal archives to come up with all new material.
Light plays a major role in your films, in terms of both cinematography and survival.
Stéphane Martin’s main job – my director of photography – was to put himself at the service of Claude, whom I wanted to look beautiful and noble. Our funds were limited, and we had to make do with natural light which, incidentally, I love. But the most important was to find the right angle and lighting so that Claude would come across as noble and charismatic, like a shaman or old tribal chief – in other words, in the light of my admiration for him. I never wanted age to be the focus. And yet, the image is honest, since this man, who was once a force of nature, had agreed to be directed in all his fragility, which he accepts, and I didn’t want to betray that.
Sometimes, he was tense, so we had to reshoot several times, like with an actor. Other times he simply forgot about the camera. I kept at him about being natural, which he appreciated since he knew what I was after.
From MARCH OF THE PENGUINS to ONCE UPON A FOREST, it’s clear in your films that ecology is not a source of anxiety, it’s optimistic, in the service of humanity.
In Antarctica, when you’re in a full-blown blizzard, you’re dead if you don’t take action. It’s the same for the climate and therefore humanity. So the question is not whether we are optimistic or pessimistic, but how we get out of the blizzard! The same is true on a mountain, or if you’re caught in an ambush. There’s no time to philosophize, only to survive! Optimism or pessimism are of no consequence. Just as a squadron chief, caught in an ambush, has an obligation to motivate his men to get out of their situation, I feel we need to mobilize those around us to overcome the environmental issues we face. I have a profound faith in Mankind. The kind of surpassing that I’ve seen revealed in Antarctica gives me a clear indication of the human capacity for pulling through, as well as for fellowship and cooperation. Despair serves no purpose. When people throw doleful, despondent arguments and guilt trips at us, all we do is suffer. For me, surpassing oneself is a profoundly positive attitude.
As in all your films, the transmission of knowledge lies at the heart of ANTARCTICA: ICE AND SKY.
For me, the notion of transmission is crucial. It’s part of a humanist perspective, recalling Rabelais and the Abbey of Thélème. We can only build on humanity if we share knowledge. I was trained by my elders in the French tradition of the compagnons (apprentices and journeymen), and I feel like the philosophy of transmission is sorely lacking nowadays.
It’s through transmission that we reach eternity. Why did you choose film as your means of expression?
I use cinema to take a stand. In film there’s always a point of view of someone about someone. In this respect there’s nothing objective about it. Like with ONCE UPON A FOREST and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, I totally defend the “point of view” position, which is the essence of cinema: I evoke someone who has a way of seeing the world, and who needs and wants to share it. It’s a point of view that’s supported by having spent time in the intimate presence of whoever I’m talking about. As a result, by spending time with Claude, by understanding what he’s told me, and through our shared experience in Antarctica, the voice-over came naturally to me. It has to do with the inner voice of the character. At times, I got the impression I was a sort of distorting mirror for Claude. What interested me was the character’s humanity, his universal quality. In the end, what mattered most to me was to give exposure to someone’s legitimacy and to bear his message.
I hope you all enjoyed this interview from Mr. Jacquet. Be sure to enter the giveaway for the DVD of Antarctica Ice and Sky!