By Nanci Nott
Peel Bright Minds and Peel-Harvey Catchment Council recently held a screening of Chris Jordan’s heartbreaking film, ‘Albatross’ – an eye-opening exploration of beauty, horror, life, loss, and the impact of plastic pollution on the birds of Midway Island.
Can you imagine a mound of intact bottle caps, lighters, and plastic shards, piled neatly within a decomposing bird carcass? These disturbing images catalysed the ‘Albatross’ project, and were included as part of the film’s shocking, but evocative, opening sequence.
Filmmaker Chris Jordan first visited Midway Island in 2009 with his friend, Manuel Marqueda. They photographed and filmed thousands of dead birds, all with startlingly non-biodegradable stomach contents. Chris and his team returned to the island eight more times, over the next four years, in order to answer the question, “What is it like to look out through the eyes of an albatross? To see the world filtered through their mind?”
I’m not sure whether to refer to this film as a documentary, or as a confronting work of art, because it is essentially both. Chris and his team worked on the film over a period of eight years, before releasing it freely in 2018 as as “a gift to the world, as a gesture of trust in doing the right thing for its own sake.” (Chris Jordan)
Unlike most documentaries, ‘Albatross’ is not heavily scripted, nor is it highly structured. It has a meandering, dreamlike quality, which emphasises both the passing of time, and the timelessness, of life on Midway Island.
“The trips were approached as open-ended creative explorations, with no story or agenda in mind. Each day on the island, my team and I filmed and photographed whatever felt most interesting and beautiful, without judging our subjects' relevance.” (Chris Jordan)
Scenes of albatross chicks hatching, under the watchful protection of their parents, were truly beautiful to watch. Albatross parents don’t interfere with the hard labour of egg-emergence, because they know the process itself is important for the chicks’ development. They do, however, encourage their offspring with singing and gentle nudging.
The albatross mating dances were also breathtaking, especially when the footage was slowed down to allow our human brains time to process the graceful, synchronised movements of the pair-bonded mates.
The filmmakers skilfully captured the essence of albatross life, highlighting the undeniable awareness and intentionality of these birds, without anthropomorphising, or otherwise cheapening, the experience.
The genuine joy and grief of the filmmakers was apparent, especially towards the end of the film, when we witnessed a plastic-heavy albatross drowning in the waves – and others dying in slow agony on land – fighting for life, but unable to cope with the insidious contamination we have carelessly unleashed on their world.
Whilst sharing the lives of these trusting birds, the filmmakers discovered that, “the true nature of grief revealed itself. Grief is the same as love.”
The final scenes were hard to watch. A grieving hand on the corpse of a beloved albatross. A pair of scissors. Piece after piece of hard plastic being removed from an albatross’s stomach, filling the bare hands of a devastated filmmaker. This imagery in this scene was particularly poignant, because the problem, and the solution, are literally in our hands. We can not separate our human actions from the resulting inhumane consequences.
Aspects of ‘Albatross’ were disturbing, but that’s exactly why this film is important. To quote the film: “In this act of witnessing, a doorway opens.”
We need to open these doorways. To keep them closed is to refuse to see, and to refuse to see is to refuse to change. It is only by confronting the truth that we are able to take action towards a better outcome.
After the movie ended, Kate Born from Peel-Harvey Catchment Council gave a presentation on micro plastics, ocean pollution, and the effects of plastics on marine wildlife. Kate also spoke about actions we can take as individuals to take responsibility, and make a lasting difference.
Jessie Fenelon, also from PHCC, invited audience members to participate in a wetlands cleanup, occurring the following morning, in an attempt to reduce plastic consumption among our local (and migratory) bird population.
Peel-Harvey Catchment Council’s presentations, paired beautifully with the screening of ‘Albatross’, reminded attendees that the more knowledgeable we become, the more we can improve the world we live in. As well as the obvious actions (reduce, reuse, recycle, etc) there is so much we are capable of doing to minimise the suffering we bring to ourselves and other species.
We need to resist the consumer mindset, steer clear of plastic when we can, and buy only what we need. We can approach politicians, write letters, invent new ways of doing things, and make personal choices that, when made by enough people, will force large companies and organisations to rethink the way they use plastics in their products, and in their manufacturing processes.
Something that wasn’t mentioned implicitly, but which was implied contextually, is that we are all capable of opening doorways through the act of witnessing. It is our responsibility to keep our eyes open. We can’t turn a blind eye to an issue just because it is uncomfortable, distasteful, or inconvenient.
Creating (and viewing) art, in an effort to inspire change, is something we can – and should – participate in wherever possible. Knowledge helps us think, but art makes us feel. It is this synthesis of information and emotion that enables us to understand life in a truly meaningful way.
Chris Jordan and his team went to great lengths to encapsulate that very mindset throughout the making of ‘Albatross’. I was both touched and appalled by this particular act of witnessing. And I am grateful for the experience.
If you are ready to open the door for yourself, Albatross is free to view here.
Thank you to Peel Bright Minds, Make Place, and Peel-Harvey Catchment Council for holding this event as part of the Wetlands Weekender Festival. Thanks to Mataya for the delicious catering, and to the filmmakers behind ‘Albatross’ for their eye-opening gift to the world.