A pontiff set upon by angels

Watching Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela for New Scientist, 15 January 2020.

WINTER in southern Siberia. By a long-winded, painstaking method involving levers, ropes and a fair amount of cursing, vehicles that have fallen through the thawing ice of Lake Baikal can be hauled back onto the surface.

The crew working on Aquarela were filming one such operation when an SUV shot past in a shower of ice, then plunged nose-first into the freezing water, killing one of its occupants.

There is nothing exploitative about the footage that, after much soul-searching, Russian film-maker Victor Kossakovsky used to front his poetic, narrative-less documentary about the power and weirdness of water. Locals and police slip and topple, hacking frantically at the ice, while the accident’s sole survivor stumbles about, frenzied with terror and getting in everyone’s way.

Kossakovsky is one of those rare documentary makers who still believes that the camera alone can capture truth. His expensive and time-consuming method of waiting, watching and witnessing the world is rarely supported by an industry obsessed with narratives and sound bites. Bravo, then, to Participant Media and the film’s many other backers, large and small, for Aquarela: the strangest, most powerful eco-documentary you are ever likely to see.

Captured at a staggering 96 frames per second, Aquarela‘s tracking shots, even in extreme close-up, are completely flicker-free. This makes them surreally present, in a way that demolishes scale and has you gripping the arms of your chair. Virtually no cinemas are equipped to screen such footage: this is a film made with an eye to posterity, and the plaudits that come with being a cinematic first.

Just as much study – and, no doubt, expense – has gone into the super-stabilisation of the camera used to capture the swells of a storm-tossed mid-Atlantic. If ever a present-day sequence could recreate the urban myth surrounding L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, in which early audiences were convinced an on-screen train was going to drive into them and fled to the back of the cinema, it is a ride over one of Aquarela‘s impending waves.

Why recommend a film that no cinema chain can yet screen properly? Buying the Blu-Ray disc or watching it on a streaming service (we will tell you when it arrives in our Don’t Miss column) is likely to convey only a fraction of its magic. But that fragment is jaw-dropping. After so many eco-docs, with their predictable 5-second glimpses of calving icebergs, here, finally, is a film that lingers on the berg as it sinks and rises, turns and crumbles, until an ice fragment floats by that looks for all the world like a pontiff set upon by angels.

This is a film that makes even a placid ocean surface strange, as oblique light catches the ripples within each little wave. Those ripples, in such a harsh, angled, almost monochrome light, resemble the stress fractures you find in flint or bottle glass. As such, the water, for all its movement, looks like a weirdly animated mineral, and those ocean swells really do look like mountains – the cliche made vivid at last.

This isn’t a film about our relationship with water. From continent to continent, glacier to ocean, burst dam to waterfall, Aquarela is about water’s indifference to any relationship we might try to strike up with it. It is a most disconcerting film.

Worth losing sleep over

Watching Human Nature, directed by Adam Bolt, for New Scientist, 27 November 2019.

Mature and intelligent, Human Nature shows us how gene editing works, explores its implications and – in a field awash with alarmist rhetoric and cheap dystopianism – explains which concerns are worth losing sleep over.

This gripping documentary covers a lot of ground, but also works as a primer on CRISPR, the spectacular technology that enables us to cut and paste genetic information with something like the ease with which we manipulate text on a computer. Human Nature introduces us to key start-ups and projects that promise to predict, correct and maybe enhance the genetic destinies of individuals. It explores the fears this inspires, and asks whether they are reasonable. Its conclusions are cautious, well-argued and largely optimistic.

Writers Regina Sobel and Adam Bolt (who also directs) manage to tell this story through interviews. Key players in the field, put at their ease during hours of film-making, speak cogently to camera. There is no narration.

Ned Piyadarakorn’s graphics are ravishing and yet absurdly simple to grasp. They need to be, because this is an account hardly less complex than those in the best popular science books. As the film progressed, I began to suspect that the film-makers assume we aren’t idiots. This is so rare an experience that it took a while to sink in.

There are certain problems the film can’t get round, though. There are too many people in white coats moving specks from one Petri dish to another. It couldn’t be otherwise, given the technology involves coats, specks, Petri dishes and little else by way of props the general viewer can understand. That this is a source of cool amusement rather than irritation is largely due to the charisma of the film’s cast of researchers, ethicists, entrepreneurs, diagnosticians, their clients and people with conditions that could be helped by the technique, such as schoolboy David Sanchez, who has sickle-cell anaemia. We learn that researchers are running clinical trials using CRISPR to test a therapy for his condition.

Foundational researchers like Jennifer Doudna and Jill Banfield, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Fyodor Urnov provide star quality. Provocateurs like Stephen Hsu, a cheerful promoter of designer babies, and the longevity guru George Church are given room to explain why they aren’t nearly as crazy as some people assume.

Then the bioethicist Alta Charo makes the obvious but frequently ignored point that the Brave New World nightmare CRISPR is said to usher in is a very old and well-worn future indeed. Sterilisations, genocide and mass enslavement have been around a lot longer than CRISPR, she says, and if the new tech is politically abused, we will only have our ourselves to blame.

There is, of course, the possibility that CRISPR will let loose some irresistibly bad ideas. Consider the mutation in a gene called ADRB1, which allows us to get by on just 4 hours’ sleep a night. I would leap at the chance of a therapy that freed up my nights – but I wonder what would happen if everyone else followed suit. Would we all live richer, more fulfilled lives? Or would I need a letter from my doctor when I applied for a 16-hour factory shift?

The point, as Human Nature makes all too clear, is that the questions we should be asking about gene editing are only superficially about the technology. At heart, they are questions about ourselves and our values.

Hurtling towards zero

Watching Richard Ladkani’s Sea of Shadows for New Scientist, 2 October 2019

This is the story of the world’s smallest whale, the vaquita, reduced in number to fewer than 30 individuals, and hiding out in the extreme south-western corner of its territory in the Sea of Cortez. It is not a story that will end well, though Richard Ladkani (whose 2016 Netflix documentary The Ivory Game was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2017) has made something here which is very hard to look away from.

This is not an environmental story. This is a true crime. No-one’s interested in hunting the vaquita. The similarly sized Totoaba fish, which shares the vaquita’s waters, is another matter. It’s called the cocaine of the sea — a nickname that makes no sense whatsoever until you learn that the Mexican drug cartels have moved into the totoaba business to satisfy demand from the Chinese luxury market. (It’s the usual film-flam: the fish’s swim bladders are supposed to possess rare medical properties. )

Illegal gill nets that catch the totoaba — itself a rapidly declining population — also catch and kill vaquitas. The government talks a good environmental game but has let the problem get out of hand. Law-abiding fishing communities are ruined by blanket fishing bans while the illegals operate with near-impunity. Late on in the film, there’s some CCTV footage of a couple of soldiers having some car trouble. They ask for help from a passing motorist. Who shoots one of the soldiers dead. Bam. Just like that. And drives away. Meet Oscar Parra, the tortoaba padron of Santa Clara. (I said you couldn’t look away; I didn’t say you wouldn’t want to.)

Things are so bad, a scheme is dreamt up to remove the remaining vaquitas from the ocean and keep them in captivity. It’s an absurdly desperate move, because virtually nothing is known about the vaquita’s disposition and habits. (Some locals believe the creature is a myth dreamt up by a hostile government to bankrupt the poor: how’s that for fake news?) Project leader Cynthia Smith explains the dilemma facing the vaquita: “possible death in our care or certain death in the ocean”. She knows what she’s doing — she a senior veterinarian for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program — but no one has ever tried to capture, let alone keep, a vaquita before. This could go very wrong indeed. (And still, you cannot look away…)

Sea of Shadows won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in February this year; National Geographic snapped it up for $3million. It’s built around a collaborative investigation between Andrea Crosta, executive director and co-founder of Earth League International (the hero-detectives of The Ivory Game) and Carlos Loret de Mola, a popular correspondent and news anchor in Mexico, whose topical show Despierta reaches an international audience of 35 million people a day. Crosta and de Mola and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, their maritime partners in crime-prevention, are all of them expert in handling and appealing to the media. Everything about this film that might rankle the viewer is entirely deliberate — the film’s “whodunnit” structure, the way all content is crammed into a pre-storyboarded narrative, then squeezed to release a steady drip-drip-drip of pre-digested information. Sea of Shadows is pure NatGeo fodder, and if you don’t like that channel much, you won’t like this at all.

Just bear in mind, the rest of us will be perching on the edge of our sofas, in thrall to drone-heavy cinematography that owes not a little to Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 thriller Sicario, rocked by a thumping score full of dread and menace, and appalled by a story headed pell-mell for the dark.

Rare resources are doomed to extinction eventually because the rarer a resource is, the more expensive it is, and the more incentive there is to trade in it. This is why, past a certain point, rare stocks hurtle towards zero.

Can the vaquita be saved? Sea of Shadows was made in 2018 and says there are fewer than 30 vaquitas in the ocean.

Today there are fewer than 10.

NASA, Kennedy and me

(Not that I wish to oversell this, you understand…)

Come along to New Scientist Live at 2.30pm on Saturday 22 September and you’ll find me talking to documentary-maker Rory Kennedy about how NASA shapes life on the ground, how it juggles the competing promises of the Moon and Mars, and how public and private space initiatives can work together. Kennedy will also be discussing her life as a documentary film-maker,  her memories of her uncle “Jack” Kennedy, and how the Apollo program inspired her philanthropic career.

Tickets and details here

Scotland’s secret weapon

Attending the launch of  Shore: How we see the sea for New Scientist, 18 August 2018

NOBODY catches much fish around the island of Arran now: overfishing and pollution have hit wild populations hard. There are still plenty of fish, mind: not free-swimming, but cooped up in huge salmon farms that leach detritus, pesticides, antibiotics and plastic waste into the Firth of Clyde.

And yet it is to Arran that Scotland’s coastal communities have turned to see a working vision of a cleaner, healthier, more productive ocean.

Arran’s Lamlash Bay became a Community Marine Reserve in January 2008. Its No Take Zone is helping local maerl, a fragile pink coral-like algae, which provides a habitat for sponges, sea squirts, crabs, squat lobsters and scallops. The hope is that commercial species such as cod will use this area to recover their numbers, and then spill out into the surrounding sea.

Meanwhile, the 280 square kilometres of the South Arran Marine Protected Area restricts trawling and dredging. A community development, it is the first of its kind, and has been taken up by the Scottish government with the creation of 30 more MPAs, covering some 20 per cent of the country’s seas.

Restoring Scottish sea life after decades of pollution, dredging and overfishing is not going to be easy. “We’ve got a long way to go, just to get the environment back to the condition it was 50 years ago,” says Howard Wood, founder of local advocacy organisation COAST, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust. Most ministers, he adds, are only interested in what the environment provides or used to provide – and how much can be wrung from it in five years.

The exciting thing about COAST is the armoury it brings to the battle against the myopia of politicians. Glasgow and York universities are monitoring Arran’s coastal waters, while COAST is working with local tourist organisations to develop dive sites. Even more impressively, it has won over the local fishing community.

Multimedia festival Shore: How we see the sea is the latest addition to COAST’s arsenal. This festival of coastal life was created in Arran and is now circling the Scottish coast, before it ends up in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth science theme park in April 2019. It is curated by Invisible Dust, a UK-wide organisation that pairs scientists and artists to explore key environmental issues.

Its founder, Alice Sharp, has commissioned two film-makers, despite the lack of cinemas in the north of Scotland. But the Shore festival does not lack technical backup: it has Screenmachine, a large blue lorry that unpacks Transformer-like into a comfortable 80-seater surround-sound cinema.

Margaret Salmon’s Cladach explores the shoreline of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area and the community bordering it in Ullapool. “Imagine somebody spending time in a town, then drifting down a beach and into the sea. Margaret’s film is like a journey from one medium to another,” says Sharp.

The second film, I Walk There Every Day But Never Saw It That Way by Ed Webb-Ingall, is a very different proposition as the first instalment in a community video project that aims to get Scotland’s disparate coastal communities talking to each other.

It is an old idea, Webb-Ingall says. In the 1970s, the National Film Board of Canada invited film-maker Colin Low to visit Fogo Island, off Newfoundland, whose fishing community was collapsing. “Low made short films of a group on one part of the island, then showed it to another group.” Soon the different communities and interests had a conversation going, and a more sustainable fishing industry began to emerge.

“The myth among film-makers is the ‘Fogo Process’ rejuvenated the island,” says Webb-Ingall. “Others reckon they were doing the work already!” Salmon is inclined to agree: “These precarious communities have experienced centuries of ebbs and flows. They’re a strong people.”

A grin without a cat

What happens to a body of artistic work when its presiding genius dies? It’s hard to imagine anyone finds it hard to hold in mind the cumulative effect of the works of J G Ballard, say, or even Dame Barbara Cartland. Mythomanes are, above all else, consistent.

But it’s consistency that matters – not personality. While he lived, the writer-artist-filmmaker Derek Jarman practically personified British metropolitan intellectual life. But it was his living personality that held his wildly varied (and variable) world together. Within a couple of months of his death, those of us who’d rated him were beginning to avoid making eye contact: day by day, the pleasures we had shared were ceasing to make any sense.

Time will heal Jarman’s reputation, but very slowly – and I think the work of Chris Marker – the videos, the writings, the photographs, the documentaries, the films, the CD-ROMs, the installations and all the rest of it – is likely to require as long a recuperation.

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The Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of London has put together a tremendous retrospective of the life and work of the French artist and documentary maker, who died in 2012. But the experience, as you move dumbfounded from screen to glass case to screen to keyboard, is neither one of pleasure, nor even admiration. In fact it’s cumulatively disturbing.

How can none of this mean anything any more? Is it the gallery, or is it you? (It’s you.) Even Marker’s filmed photo roman La Jetee (the easy one, the entry text, the one that got turned into Twelve Monkeys) slithers over your eyes as slick and as cold as an eel. Are you having some sort of stroke?

 

Alain Resnais called Marker “the prototype of the twenty-first-century man” and he wasn’t kidding. Marker was Mr Media Saturation, the living incarnation of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. His video mash-ups didn’t just capture the future. They somehow made it inevitable.

And that, of course, is the trouble. We are living in Marker’s world now, just as surely as we are living in Jarman’s. It’s damned hard to map a forest when you’ve been dropped slap-bang in the middle of it.

Feel your way, purblind, from one wall-mounted explanatory text to another. Most are in Marker’s own words. He understands your pain. He even gives it a name: “the megalomanic melancholy in the browsing of past images.”

For now, at least, Marker, the unwitting and posthumous author of his own explanatory texts, lives more fully and more vividly than his work, his subjects, his photographs of 1968, and students demonstrating against “a largely imaginary fascism”.

“In another time I guess I would have been content with filming girls and cats,” he writes. “But you don’t choose your time.”