Soft guitar music adds to the depth of the moment as I look into her kohl-rimmed eyes framed by steel-gray cheeks. I’m falling into those eyes, recognizing clearly for the first time this essence gradually coming into focus through her gaze. That essence is dignity – a being’s worth and their innate right to exist, and now that I’ve named it, I see it everywhere. The film is “Albatross,” directed by Chris Jordan, and it’s just punched a hole in my heart that will never heal. I watch these glorious birds – the Laysan Albatross – wheel and dance, soar and glide over the sea. I watch them tend to their precious eggs and downy chicks with incomprehensible devotion and then, I watch them die. It’s not every day that I watch something perish, but in this film, alongside images of shimmering life, there is death and suffering that I can hardly bear, and seeing it alters me, permanently.
Tens of thousands of albatross die on Midway Atoll in the north Pacific every year, their bellies full of sharp, indigestible plastic. Their decomposing bodies form feathered rings around piles of hard, colorful shards, ingested on trans-Pacific quests for food. So many of them lost, their necks arched in different directions like fossils of the bird-like dinosaur, Archaeopteryx. What hits me the hardest is the footage of their active suffering, up close and full on. I watch their writhing pain and flailing agony and my hand alternates between my heart and my mouth, tears of immense sadness rolling down hot cheeks. Our insidious dependence on plastic makes us all complicit in the lament of these creatures. I am complicit, and the knowledge of this reality makes me want to do something, anything, immediately.
Jordan poses the following question in the trailer of his film:
“Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time, and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?”
Within this query lies the activating power of documentary films – visual storytelling that continues to evolve in artistry, technique and scope of subject. Documentary films are windows into the lives and experiences of others, arousing empathy, compassion and a transmuting sense of deep connection. They are mirrors, reflecting back to us our ugliness and our beauty, the dark gore and bright luminosity of our species. They are doorways, leading us into expanded dimensions of thought and technology, offering glimpses of what’s possible in contrast to our personal and collective past. They inform our populace and blow the whistle on greed, corruption, violence, and ignorance. In 2017, they have become rapid transit wormholes allowing for instantaneous action and engagement with a wide array of social and environmental causes.
Stash Wislocki, producer of the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival and director said documentary films have the power and potential to ignite almost immediate action.
“That’s what drew me to documentaries in the first place – their ability to be used as a platform for activism,” said Wislocki, who is also producer of multiple feature-length films, including “Dear Governor Hickenlooper” (2014) and “No Man’s Land” (2017). “Documentaries used to be primarily journalistic, showing an objective perspective, but over the last two decades, I love how the industry has trended more towards biased films like “Damnation” (2014) and “The Cove” (2009), which both powered a lot of people to make changes. Documentaries allow for direct action to happen quickly. With “Chasing Coral,” (2017) they made the film and then offered this engagement arm through social media that activated immediate awareness, action and change.”
Seattle-based filmmaker Erik Koto debuted his documentary, “The Song Collector,” at Mountainfilm in 2016. The film is about Morup Namgyal, a Himalayan folk singer who has dedicated his life to preserving the history and heritage of his people, the Ladakhis, through song and the creation of a school where the next generation is taught to appreciate the richness of the Ladakhi culture. Said Koto about the impact of his film, “The most powerful change I’ve observed as a result of making ‘The Song Collector’ is with the Ladakhi people themselves. There’s the global impact of a film, but the personal impact on the people involved has also been profound.”
Documentaries can be a ruthless kick to the gut, their content challenging and hard to digest.
“I’ve been with Mountainfilm for 20 years and these films still grab me and open my eyes,” Wislocki said. “I understand that there are intense things in the world, but we need to talk about them in an intelligent manner. It’s incumbent upon us as our social responsibility to challenge ourselves to watch, even when we may not want to.”
Over the recent Memorial Day weekend, I attended the 2017 Telluride Mountainfilm Festival and burned through 30 short and feature-length documentaries in four days. By Monday my mind was awash in ideas and I struggled to maintain balance between the competing sensations of hope and despair. Our planet continues to warm with grave repercussions. Muslim extremists continue to indiscriminately destroy, species perch on the precipice of extinction, Syria is a hell-zone, refugees seek asylum in a walled-up world, and the current U.S. government grows evermore resemblant of a totalitarian regime. In so many ways we’re a seething, hot mess, but we’re also spectacular. We’re bravery in the face of tyranny and perseverance through seemingly insurmountable trials. We’re innovation and solution, open hearts and open minds.
It’s been two weeks since I summoned the courage to dive deep into the reality of our time, allowing myself, as Jordan suggested, to feel deeply enough that it transformed me. Since the film festival, I’ve been in constant action and have made many changes, most notably resolving to no longer eat meat. As a way of minimizing my carbon footprint, it feels like the right choice, but really, truth be told, it all started with those kohl-rimmed eyes – the eyes of a dying albatross, pleading with me to acknowledge the dignity of her life.
Jaime Becktel is a writer and illustrator living in Mancos. She can be reached through her website, www.carvedeepercontent.com.