Ice and the Sky (2015): Luc Jacquet’s Timely Documentary

When the 68th Cannes Film Fest wraps up Sunday with the screening of Luc Jacquet‘s Ice and the Sky, it will be hard to avoid political discussion as the documentary offers a look at climate change scientist Claude Lorius.

“I think having the film for the closing night sends a very strong political message,” Jacquet said.  “The environment is very much entering the sphere of cinema, like all other contemporary topics, from poverty to politics, in contrast to the situation before where documentaries of this type were more confined to television. I think the Cannes selection committee made a strong statement that documentaries of this kind should not be marginalized.”

Since making his Oscar-winning March of the Penguins in 2005, Jacquet has taken his nature docus in a new direction. Not satisfied to just show the beauty of the natural world, the French filmmaker has become an overt activist, focusing on man’s impact on the environment.

His last feature documentary, Once Upon a Forest, in 2013, looked at human degradation of a tropic rainforest.

“I think that people now have a moral obligation to move fast in order to reverse the environmental situation,” Jacquet says. “Maybe I should have done this before. But as a cineaste I feel that I absolutely need to take sides and that I need to participate and I feel that I am privileged because of my position as both a director and a scientist.”

Paul Watson, founder of activist group the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, and star of Whale Wars on Animal Planet, says the movie industry has traditionally avoided overt environmentalism.

“They’ve slipped these environmental films in undercover,” he says. “Avatar was really about the Brazilian rainforest, and Interstellar was really about climate change. I think Noah was one of the most blatant ones about climate change, though they didn’t mention it, the message is certainly there.”

But Watson, in Cannes for special presentations of environmental advocacy documentaries Blackfish and Cowspiracy, in which he appears, believes the tide may be shifting.

“I think we’re breaking through right now and people are starting to see the value of these kinds of films,” he says. “People are seeing the power of documentaries.  These documentaries are starting to have the same kind of impact as feature films.”

Blackfish, a look at the mistreatment of Orcas and other whales at SeaWorld, certainly had an impact on the famous marine park. SeaWorld lost more than $25 million last quarter as attendance numbers, and its share price, plunged thanks to the negative publicity generated by Blackfish. Company CEO Jim Atchison, resigned in January.

The box office impact of environmental docs is less clear. Blackfish earned $2 million in U.S. release but similar advocacy docs, including the Oscar-winning The Cove (2009), have struggled to hit seven figures. Jacquet’s March of the Penguins, a splendor of nature documentary without any environmentalist message, earned $130 million worldwide, including nearly $80 million in the U.S.. Once Upon a Forest closed out at just over $6.5 million stateside.

Jacquet admits that the large number of climate change deniers in the U.S. pose a challenge to the release of his films there, now that he isn’t hiding his environmental leanings. “I don’t know if I can change the opinion of the climate change deniers,” he says. “During a recent visit to the United States, I was shocked by the virulence and the hypocrisy of these lies (about climate change). I wonder if there aren’t some hidden interests or influence behind this. But my desire (with Ice and the Sky) was to create an objective message to show that scientific data is not arrived at just be chance, but thanks to the hard work of scientists who have worked in difficult and dangerous conditions…that this data that has been emerging has not been gathered just to annoy the people of the world but rather to point at something that is going on that is actually very serious, so let’s work together to try and bring about a reduced carbon society.”

Also in Cannes pitching his latest nature documentary is ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, the 77-year-old son of famed, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau is putting the finishing touches on Odyssea 3D, which looks at the tiniest creatures in the sea – plankton – which form the bottom of the food chain and account for more than half of all oxygen production on the planet.

Cousteau himself is an environmental activist and his films have had direct political impact in the past. His 2006 documentary Voyage to Kure inspired the then U.S. President George W. Bush to create the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

In Odyssea 3D, however, Cousteau deliberately avoided, as he puts it, “preaching the environmentalist message.” The beauty of nature, not mankind’s impact on it, is the film’s focus.

“My father always said: people protect what they love. We want people to fall in love with these things they have never seen – the phytoplankton and zooplankton, the tiniest creatures of the sea, the foundation of all life on the planet. I have tested the film in various parts of the U.S. over the past two months and the reaction is always the same: that is amazing. What can I do to help?”

“It’s not doom and gloom, says Pascal Borno, whose Conquistador Entertainment is selling Odyssea 3D worldwide. “We definitely won’t lose (the climate change denier) audience on this one.”

Cousteau plans to finish Odyssea 3D by the end of the year and hopes to premiere it in Cannes next year, exactly 50 years after his father’s film, The Silent War, won the Palme d’Or, the first documentary to do so.

Box office gold or not, environmental documentaries are becoming easier to make, thanks to celebrity support – think of Leonardo Di Caprio-produced Virunga or Pharrell Williams, who backed i-D-produced environmental doc The Plastic Age.

“More and more stars are becoming involved in these issues, more and more people are trying to make these kinds of films,” says Watson. “That visibility is getting these films and issues in front of the public and putting additional pressure on the industries. This is the struggle of the 21st century – the resource wars. The movement to save the environment is the fastest growing movement in history. It’s completely universal because it effects everybody in every country no matter what their political or religious affiliations. It’s probably the only thing that has that universal impact.”