TIFF 2013: Chris Jordan on ‘Midway,’ Changing Global Consciousness, Sharing the Message of the Albatross and Aestheticizing Horror
A new kind of issue film is upon us with Midway, a documentary that seems to start out like a straight nature film but then evolves into an environmentalist film all the while featuring sublime cinematography joined by poetic voiceover narration meant to be from the perspective of the titular Pacific island. I see it as almost a companion to Leviathan, and also as a kind of flipped response to John Ford’s WWII doc The Battle of Midway and the recent issue film Bag It, about the problem of plastic garbage polluting the world. But it’s also not really comparable to anything that’s come before. This is what happens, I suppose, when you have a doc co-directed by a photographic artist like Chris Jordan and March of the Penguins editor Sabine Emiliani.
I talked to the filmmakers over the weekend, joined by producer Stephanie Levy, and it was mostly Jordan who spoke. He shared a lot of insights into the problem and the film and what they’re attempting to do with it that I hadn’t thought of. I guess I just hadn’t expected him to admit this isn’t a call to help Midway’s pollution-ingesting albatross or the island itself. Emiliani and Levy finally provided some info on the ideas behind the narration, though the voiceover heard in the film at TIFF is apparently not the final version anyway. Meanwhile, I must apologize to Emiliani and readers if I misquote her at all in the end as a result of mishearing the words through her French accent. Check out the full conversation below, and also look for Jordan’s earlier short film about Midway and its albatross.
Nonfics: What was your initial introduction to this issue and your reason for going out to Midway?
Chris Jordan: On one hand, I was interested in the Pacific garbage patch and interested in trying to visualize it. It’s this massive, invisible systemic problem in our oceans, and there’s no way to take a photograph of it because it’s spread out over thousands of miles of ocean.
But what I’ve been interested in on a different level for a really long time is how do we shift consciousness. The whole world of activism is all about changing behavior. The concept of making an issue film or being an activist, there’s a lot of finger-wagging about telling people how to behave. Basically, it doesn’t work. In that way, I think of the world of activism — and the world of environmentalism that’s built into that — is broken. There are a lot of really smart people out there who are saying that if we want to achieve global change of behavior, the way to do it is to first achieve global change of consciousness. That’s really what the Midway project and the film Midway are aimed at.
Nonfics: I’m curious about your working with Jim Hurst, who also shot some of Bag It, which is where I first heard about the problem out there. That’s such a different kind of issue film. Did you guys talk about that contrast?
Jordan: Jim and I have had a long ongoing conversation. He came out to Midway with me on six of the trips. So we spent weeks and weeks together probing into the philosophy of it. I love the way you phrased it about “the problem out there.” Bag It looked at the problem “out there,” and what we’re trying to look at with Midway is the problem that’s in here.
Nonfics: I assume you guys have seen John Ford’s Battle of Midway doc?
Jordan: Yeah. The “gooney birds.”
Nonfics: I thought it was interesting how they talk about how the Japanese are supposedly out to “liberate the natives” — as in the albatross. Well, the Americans won the battle and then left all their waste over there and ruined their home, as we see in many of the shots in this film. We sure didn’t save them. Midway is a fascinating response to The Battle of Midway on that level.
Jordan: When you look at the albatross and the plastic in the ocean, it’s a systemic, cultural, global problem that there’s not an easy solution to. In that way, we’re not really trying to awaken activism around trying to save the albatross or clean up beaches or that kind of thing. We look at the albatross as really being like the canary in the coal mine. I’ve always liked that as a metaphor because when the canary dies in the coal mine, miners don’t walk over to save the canary. They receive the message that that creature just gave its life to deliver to them and then act quickly on their own behalf.
Nonfics: There are a few shots in the film that are so close-up and so perfectly shot that everything looks so tangible, like I could reach into the screen and touch the bird. It’s better than 3D. But then of course this aspect made it even harsher when we see the birds suffering, because then we want to reach in and help them. It’s devastating from this side of the screen. How hard was it for you guys to watch this in person?
Jordan: It was awful, on many levels. Part of the horror of it was that there was nothing we could do for any of the birds. Every time we tried to do something, it turned out to be the wrong thing. Every now and then we’d be waist deep in the water filming and we’d see a bird drowning, and it was obviously choking to death on plastic, so we’d lift it out of the water and bring it back to the beach. And it would be gasping on the beach in a state of collapse, and immediately when we walked away all the crabs started coming out from the sand, and the first thing the crabs go for is the bird’s eyes. So we’d have to make these horrible decisions to then lift the bird up and then take it back out and let it drown in the water.
There was a Hawaiian elder we consulted before going out to the island for the first time, and she gave us a really beautiful piece of guidance that we followed for the whole project. She said, “Don’t think of these birds as being helpless victims. Think of these birds as being sentient beings who, with intention, are calling the garbage of the world to themselves as a way of sending the world a message.” I love that approach because if we view them as helpless victims then all we can do is stand back and consume images of the birds dying in a passive way. If the birds are messengers, then it’s up to us to receive the message and be transformed by it, or not. When you’re the recipient of a message, there’s a relationship, and if the birds are merely helpless victims then there’s no relationship there. On a deeper level, the albatross are mirroring our own selves.
Nonfics: There is so much beauty in the film’s cinematography and yet so much of it is also devastating imagery, too. What are your thoughts on how pictures can make the worst things appear so beautiful?
Jordan: There’s always the pitfall of aestheticizing horror, and really, to me, the world is beautiful. Everything is beautiful. Except the mistakes that we humans make when we lose our dignity. That’s one of the messages of Midway. The island is called “Mid-way.” It’s a place that’s between dystopia and paradise. Between horror and beauty. It’s a crossroads. Midway is kind of the strongest example I’ve ever discovered of a place with this interface between beauty and horror. When the two come together and you can’t even tell the difference between them anymore. There’s something that passes right in that moment that sort of turns the world inside out on itself.
Nonfics: What can you tell me about the idea and process behind the poetic narration?
Stephanie Levy: To be completely candid and honest, our narration is a bit of a work in progress. We were racing to the deadline. We were invited to premiere here at TIFF and we were wildly editing and finishing the film and doing all the other finishing work. We actually want to go in and fix a bit of that.
But the perspective that comes from the island speaking is something that Sabine thought of. It was a naturally like, who would be the witness? This isn’t in any way shape or form a typical way of documentary storytelling. We have this kind of nonlinear structure and Sabine took from many beautiful narrative films and love stories. This is a love story about our planet. And a poetic roundabout way of showcasing it in an environmental film.
Sabine Emiliani: The voice of the island is first the artistic perspective of Chris Jordan, because the film is based on that at the beginning. The plastic in the ocean, you can’t see it. It’s a kind of monster under the carpet. The only way to witness it — and this is why Chris went to Midway — is you can look inside the bellies of the dead bird. It’s the only way that the plastic is revealed. Because this took place on Midway, because they are such a beautiful messenger of life and love and a kind of hope in the beauty of the world, and we thought naturally that the island has another story.
Midway screens once more at TIFF on Friday morning.