MOVIES A Deep Dive Into Troubled Waters

The handsome, rigorously researched documentary “A Sea Change,” playing Saturday at the Environmental Film Festival, calls for some tough love on the part of even the most sympathetic viewer. The story of a retired educator who becomes interested in, and finally consumed by, the declining state of the world’s oceans, the film brings a crucial and little-known issue to the attention of filmgoers. The movie, which takes the audience to some of the globe’s most attractive locales, brings to surprisingly absorbing life the subject of ocean acidification. That’s what happens when carbon dioxide — released by cars and other fossil-fuel-burning culprits — ends up in the sea, thereby fatally changing its chemistry.

Still, for all its virtues, “A Sea Change” presents some vexing questions — having to do with structure, tone and full disclosure — that exemplify the pitfalls that face even the best-intentioned filmmakers.

But first, some love. “A Sea Change” stars Sven Huseby, who as the film opens is bidding his beloved 5-year-old grandson Elias goodbye after a family visit. As Huseby explains in his narration, it was after just such a get-together that he first read “The Darkening Sea,” a New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert that spelled out how carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the oceans, changing their acid levels and inexorably killing the huge protein factories they support. Leaving his home in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Huseby travels the world trying to thread his way through the science and sociology of ocean acidification, a journey that takes him to Northern California, Alaska and the farthest reaches of arctic Norway, where his ancestors were born.

“A Sea Change,” which was co-produced by Huseby and directed by Barbara Ettinger, looks terrific, with lots of breathtaking footage of the natural world, from the tiniest pteropod (the fluttery, planktonic sea snail that is most threatened by acidification) to the most majestic Norwegian scenery. And, at a time when plenty of documentaries want to be the “Inconvenient Truth” of fill-in-the-issue, “A Sea Change” brings a genuinely important subject to the fore with a welcome lack of jargon and preaching. If the film features a few too many close-ups of Google pages, it still offers viewers a good-natured, persuasive and earnest surrogate to help tutor them in research and innovation that could otherwise leave them in the intellectual dust.

So, what’s not to like? For one thing, Huseby structures his journey of discovery as a long, personal letter to his grandson, regularly reading from his postcards to Elias about his travels, calling him on the phone and visiting him at home in California. But while Huseby’s concern for Elias and his generation is no doubt authentic, in time the conceit begins to wear thin. By the time the two are seen watching whales off the California coast, what was surely meant to make a scientific issue more personal veers dangerously toward solipsism. That faint air of insularity is made even more pungent by the fact that Huseby’s world, whether in New York or California or Norway, is one of virtually unalloyed privilege.

This is particularly troubling when Huseby gets around to exploring solutions to global warming. While his interviews with entrepreneurs and activists are inspiring, again they seem to take place in a world where the face of ecological virtue is uniformly white and well off, and where apparently no one has heard of such visionaries as Van Jones, the Oakland activist whose mission is to “green the ghetto” with job training in renewable energy and clean technology. (He was just named a “green jobs” adviser to President Obama.)

A more serious concern arises when the curious viewer visits the film’s Web site and discovers that director Ettinger is actually Huseby’s wife, a fact that is never mentioned in the course of “A Sea Change.” The relationship takes nothing away from the movie’s ideas, of course, but that information should be shared if the filmmakers want to keep faith with their audience. The story that “A Sea Change” tells is urgent, unsettling and desperately in need of understanding and action. And it’s too important to risk being dismissed because it was delivered without full disclosure.

A Sea Change (90 minutes) will be shown Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. A panel discussion with scientists and the filmmakers will follow the screening. Free admission.

Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post, 12 March 2009. Article.

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