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‘A Sea Change’ humanizes a sometimes abstract threat

August 17th, 2009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby knew their documentary about ocean acidification would have to pass a high test to avoid overwhelming a public already grappling with the many technical facets of climate change.

To sound the alarm about yet another looming global warming catastrophe, the potential destruction of all marine life, their film would have to be engaging, accessible, down-to-earth.

Happily, A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish succeeds on all those levels. Humanizing this critical issue like no previous film or book, it follows the soft-spoken Huseby on an odyssey of discovery as he meets with scientists and activists in Alaska, Seattle, California and Norway trying to understand the phenomenon of ocean acidification.

Gently, the story drives home what’s at stake: A healthy planet for future generations, embodied in this case by Sven and Barbara’s spirited grandson, Elias, age 5. The irrepressible Elias serves as the film’s touchstone, reminding us of the urgency of his grandfather’s mission and of the simple wonders of beach and ocean.

Sven writes “home” about his discoveries to Elias, who lives in California (where in real life, he watches Blue Planet and is known as “a very verbal fellow”). He tells him he’s deeply worried about the oceans, but adds that as a former teacher, “I really believe the power to change begins with knowledge.”

On his travels, Sven considers how he’ll explain to Elias about this problem that should rightly fall outside the scope of childhood — the potential complete destruction of the oceans via acidification, the result of the seas absorbing humankind’s carbon dioxide emissions.

In asking, what are we leaving behind for our kids and grandkids, A Sea Change doesn’t mince words.

But this inter-generational interplay also lends the film a warmth, and keeps it clear of the rocky shoals where more strident, proselytizing documentaries sometimes crash. Sven is on a fact-finding mission, not a soap box. His director and wife, Barbara Ettinger, uses ample footage from expert subjects, but also keeps them off the preaching podium.

A Sea Change deliberately reaches out to people of all ages and political stripes. Kids will enjoy Elias’s viewpoint. Newcomers to the subject will appreciate Sven’s Mr. Rogers-like approach to interviews. The film is paced to allow for periodic reflection, and beautifully filmed along the rocky coasts of the Pacific Northwest and Norway, all the way to the Arctic, where we see and hear the ice dropping into the sea.

Sven ultimately meets a score of scientists and environmentalists who are passionate about their mission to save the oceans (which cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface). He also visits with artist Maya Lin to ponder the psychology of why we haven’t been better ocean stewards.

The film, released this spring, is being featured this week at the Downtown Film Festival-Los Angeles on Aug. 20 (Thursday at 7 p.m.) and will have its New York City premiere at the American Museum of Natural History on Sept. 13. It is also playing at cinema festivals around the world. It was conceived of in late 2006 when Sven and Barbara were both struck by the New Yorker article, The Darkening Sea” by Elizabeth Kolbert. Barbara, a filmmaker, and Sven, a former teacher and headmaster of the Putney School in Vermont, considered themselves enlightened people; Barbara’s last film had even tackled a regional environmental fight. Yet the ocean article was startling.

“We were flabbergasted that we’d never heard of the phenomenon of acidification of the sea,” Sven said last week from his home in upstate New York.

The couple set out to investigate. Sven pursued financing (eventually signing several foundations to back the movie), as Barbara figured out how to turn the story into a film that could reach a wide audience.

“We made a very clear decision. I guess part of it is who we are as people. We didn’t want to make an apocalyptic film. But what we see in this area of ocean acidification are some very big issues,” Sven said in an interview with GreenRightNow.

Much of what the film crew uncovered was disturbing, he said; “I got pretty depressed the first half of this film as we interviewed scientist after scientist.”

As the native Norwegian and former private school headmaster travels from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest US to a scientists’ outpost in Tromsoe, Norway, a dark cloud emerges. Everything out in the deep blue is in jeopardy. The oceans have been absorbing the earth’s mounting CO2 emissions, but now, all life, from the tiniest marine creatures to those at the top of the food chain – to humans – is paying a toll.

“For 20,000 years, we’ve had a relatively stable environment. Now, there are going to be a lot of extinctions,” reports Dr. Jeff Short, then with NOAA, now the Pacific Science director for Oceana.

“Ocean chemistry is being altered on a scale not seen for millions of years,” says marine professor, Dr. Edward L. Miles, ot the University of Washington: “And we don’t know what the consequences will be.”

When the oceans turn acidic, Sven explains in our interview, “it’s like dropping a piece of chalk into vinegar.” That’s an exaggeration, but what happens to the chalk shows how shellfish, coral and the delicate, tiny pterapods at the foundation of the marine food chain are being affected.

Increasing carbon emissions here on land mean more ocean acidity, which is sapping the oceans’ capacity to support life and pushing them to the brink. Fish populations are thinning, coral is dying and the Ph of the water is nearing fatal levels for many species.

We get many visuals. Sven interviews a chemistry teacher who demonstrates with baby teeth what acid (in the form of a soda) can do to a calcium coating, like those on the pterapods. (You’ll understand the oceans better, and reconsider your next Coke.)

Similar mini-tutorials keep us hanging in with Sven as he bikes, hikes and hovers on several coastlines, explaining the threat to our oceans – and during the last part of the film, what can be done to save them.

It’s an enjoyable ride, even under that brooding cloud. Our amazingly robust 65-year-old narrator, his glib grandson, and the fleet of people working to solve things make for an eye-opening tale. There are poignant moments, like when the author of the New Yorker piece Kolbert commiserates with Sven about leaving such an ailing planet for our children.

“I continue to think about that remark and trying to turn this thing around,” Sven says in our interview.

A Sea Change does offer hope, on several coasts. There are the lawyer activist in California, wind engineers in Norway, executives at Google and others, who believe pollution can be stopped and alternative energy harnessed to turn back the carbon clock.

Even in unlikely spots, such as the century-old Solstrand Hotel in Norway, which now operates on renewable energy from the ocean, there’s hope.

How can ordinary people help? “They can think about their carbon footprint,” says Huseby. “They can ask themselves how can they decrease the fossil fuel they use for transportation. They can ask how well have they insulated their homes…through conservation alone we can do the most. It’s not that expensive and it can have a huge impact.”

And, he adds, you should contact your Congressional representative.

“It sounds old-fashioned, even quaint. But it’s really important that people write to their representatives and stress that they want to get off fossil fuels…They all say they need the push. So let’s start pushing.”

Details:

A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish
Director/producer: Barbara Ettinger; co-producer: Sven Huseby; co-producer: Susan Cohn Rockefeller; editing: Toby Shimin; cinematography by Claudia Raschke-Robinson; associate producer: Ben Kalina.

Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media

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Watch the trailer for A Sea Change:

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