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Film - Issue #8

Under the Surface

A film by Tom Sweetland
Words by Chris King

Today, we might visualise wildfires and the charred remains of wildlife when we think of climate change. Before, and for many years, it would most likely have been of melting ice sheets and starving polar bears. These images - of extreme, short-term events and suffering animals - are important. They generate a reaction and immediate or short-term engagement and support for relief efforts, but fail to generate meaningful action against the ongoing, long-term impacts of climate change. Much of the communication about climate change has fundamentally failed to deepen our connection to and value of nature, and consequently failed to inspire meaningful action.

Recognising this disconnect, Tom Sweetland’s film, Under the Surface, was inspired by what he was witnessing during a week-long expedition with Sail Britain, an organisation that aims to inspire positive change for the ocean through sailing, research and the creative arts. Its founder, Oliver Beardon, continues to deepen his own knowledge and understanding of life and ecosystems in the UK, he believes that when it comes to learning about the destructive impact we are having on nature, witnessing it first-hand ensures “moments of realisation can be moments of inspiration”.

While documenting the expedition, Tom was enthralled by the dolphins, jellyfish and other life he encountered, and of the stories of those people with whom he shared a boat - scientists, artists and fellow storytellers, who wanted to deepen their connection with the marine life that inhabited the seas surrounding their home country, and, through effective communication, help nurture the same in others in order to address climate change. His experience shows the impact that immersing ourselves in nature can have, and the film he produced is just one example of the kind of storytelling that can help create the culture shift we so desperately need.

Christina Peake, an artist who features in the film, stresses that it’s vital that “barriers are removed, so that the inspiration can go somewhere”. One of these barriers is income: not everyone can afford things like locally-produced organic food, ethically-produced clothing, or breaks from the city to deepen a connection with nature through lived experience.

As Christina points out, communication on topics like climate change “needs to move into something where it’s going to change people’s behaviours, their value systems, the way they spend their money, how they bring up their family - we’re talking about deep, individual and systemic change”. This, she suggests, “requires a radically deeper intervention, and that’s where art comes in - that’s where the stories have to relate to people in such a way that it’s accessible”.

The most accessible, relatable stories are those right on our doorstep. Oliver believes that, when it comes to engaging people on issues like biodiversity loss and climate change, “it’s very important to start at home - because it’s the place we know and understand”.

The exoticism of animal life and habitats in far-off lands - an unchallenged legacy of European colonialism, compounded over the decades by beautifully-shot, big-budget documentary series, has meant that too many of us neglect to learn about and appreciate the flora and fauna in our own countries. Take the UK as an example: it is the country where many of the most well-known docuseries were produced, yet, according to research by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, it is one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe thanks to centuries of farming, building and industrial activity, and is suffering erosion on more than 3,000 km of its coastline.

As the climate crisis unfolds, artists and documentary storytellers will play a vital role in inspiring meaningful action and widening the cracks that are being exposed in the long-held narratives, by revealing and giving voice to those narratives that for too long have gone unseen and unheard.

We need to explore local stories and ensure that local people understand their role in those narratives, and that climate change is on their doorstep too. We must tell human-centric stories exploring those on the frontline of the climate crisis and solutions-focused stories of those who are actively working to address aspects of the issue.

Charlie Young, a marine scientist and communicator who assisted Oliver in leading Sail Britain’s expedition, points out that communication on climate change has quite often been focused on biodiversity: “We haven’t been telling as many stories about humans. We haven’t been giving the issue a human face.

We must change our connection to nature: artists and documentary storytellers - creators and shapers of culture - must start telling stories that inspire meaningful action. It’s time we acknowledged that we suffer when we isolate ourselves from nature - that we are a part of nature, dependent on it for our mental and physical health and wellbeing, and it gives us something that other humans cannot satisfy. It’s time all cultures acknowledge the importance of nature and our part in it. It’s time we started changing the narratives of bygone eras.

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