Houses swept away by floodwaters; record drought, wildfire and hurricanes; melting ice caps and the hottest summer on record – how can anyone doubt global warming?

Photographer James Balog, once a skeptic, sets out to prove it through his Extreme Ice Survey, capturing photographic evidence of melting, disappearing glaciers. Filmmaker Jeff Orlowski documents the lengths to which Balog goes to prove his point – including kicking off his boots to plunge into the icy water for one chilling shot in Chasing Ice.

Despite a bum knee, Balog hikes ice caps in Alaska, Iceland and Greenland, placing specially developed cameras that will endure the harsh conditions and record the glacier meltdown through time-lapse photography.

The Sundance Film Festival award-winner will be screened at the seventh annual Princeton Environmental Film Festival Feb. 2, 7 p.m. It is one of 35 films that will be shown over three weekends, Jan. 24 through Feb. 10, at the Princeton Public Library.

Documenting climate change

Chasing Ice "is the best visual representation of climate change I've ever seen," said festival director Susan Conlon.

It took seven years for Balog to create and station his cameras and have them execute the images, yet his time-lapse videos compress those years into seconds to show ancient mountains of ice disappear before our eyes.

Observing Balog up close, "I have never met someone so dedicated to their passions," filmmaker Orlowski said. 

One of the scariest moments was watching Balog climb down the canyon and onto a broken piece of ice as he looked into a shaft in the glacier. "None of us were sure if it was going to break," said Orlowski, 28. "Everyone was on the edge of the seats."

Indeed the entire crew engaged in risky behavior in order to help Balog fulfill his mission. Note to Orlowski's parents: do not read the following quote from your son. "In retrospect, there were a lot of life-threatening experiences."

At the end of the film, Balog says he went to such lengths so his children would know he did all he could to inform the world about climate change. Those who continue to deny climate change "do not have access to the science," said Orlowski. "Most of climate science is in numbers and graphs and in such technical terms that people don't understand it and think it is not true. Now we have evidence that is accessible to all people."

Our connection with nature

The theme for this year's Princeton Environmental Film Festival is "sense of place." When we think of environmental issues such as climate change, reckless development and green energy affecting our own state, town, even neighborhood, they become more threatening.

"Many of the films tell stories about people and places outside our state, and reveal how we are more connected than we realize," said Conlon.

Films falling into this category are "You've Been Trumped" (d. Anthony Baxter) in which a group of townspeople in Scotland band together when developer Donald Trump begins construction of an elaborate golf resort on a fragile piece of wilderness in Scotland; "Detropia" (d. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady), told through the eyes of people struggling to stay in post-industrial Motor City, once a grand city; "The Battle for Brooklyn" (d. Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley) about the struggle of residents fighting to preserve their neighborhood from the developer of Atlantic Yards, including Barclays Center sports arena.

Princeton resident Andrea Odezynska made Felt, Feelings and Dreams, following a small group of Kyrgyz women who pull themselves out from crushing poverty by reviving ancient traditions of making crafts and art from felt.

Against scenes of rocky mountains dotted with yurts and traditional ethnic music from the region, we see women of all ages pouring their might into shearing, soaking and beating the wool fibers, rendering it into colorful textiles.

In the six years since the festival was begun, "we have learned a lot about what makes it appealing to people returning from previous years and those just discovering it," said Conlon.

The most important criteria for selecting films is the quality of the film, and emphasis on storytelling. "We do not set out with a list of issues or a checklist. What we want the films, on their own and as part of the whole festival, to do is encourage us to explore and expand our concepts of sustainability."



As attendees become impassioned by what they see, "Our community organizations like Sustainable Princeton, Stonybrook-Millstone Watershed Association, D&R Greenway Land Trust, school gardens, and others are great gateways for people to get involved," said Conlon. "There are resources provided on many of the films' websites that offer opportunities to learn more about issues explored in the films. And some people have been inspired to tell their stories by making their own films, seeking opportunities to learn about filmmaking and access equipment at Princeton's TV-30."

The Princeton Environmental Film Festival takes place Jan. 24-27, Jan. 31-Feb. 3 and Feb. 7-10 at the Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon St., Princeton. The complete schedule can be found at the festival's website
Free admission to all films, thanks to support from Church & Dwight, Inc., Terra Momo Restaurant Group, and The Whole Earth Center of Princeton. Doors open 30 minutes prior to screening; reservations not accepted.