Directed by Craig Leeson Producers: Jo Ruxton and Adam Leipzig Film Review by Andrew Moore
Showing at the 24th London Raindance Film Festival, Journalist and Filmmaker Craig Leeson, free diver and environmental activist Tanja Streeter and a collection of colleagues, researchers and notable scientists reveal in A Plastic Ocean the shocking truth about the levels of pollution in our oceans and the equally alarming wider ramifications of this. What starts as an idyllic oceanic nature documentary representing a paradise blissfully unlost and experienced in the stunning underwater footage of Tanja Streeter free diving with blue whales turns rapidly into something else as the underwater camera pans upward to reveal an oil slicked, rubbish strewn ocean surface. Four years in the making, and with appearances from Sir David Attenborough and Ben Fogle amongst others, this is what drove the team behind A Plastic Ocean to make this film, their shock at the scale of what they encountered (and sadly that just gets worse) as we’re informed that waste plastic is the ocean’s perfect enemy and we’re creating 300 million tons of it per year (8 million of which ends up in our ocean) – and stays there.
As the Documentary progresses the already shocking footage is juxtaposed with a series of statistics and future projections flashed upon the screen to thus augment its call to action and sense of urgency. Shown at intervals, one particularly effective method is the rapidly rising numerical counter that reveals in actual viewing time how much plastic waste has been generated by the U.S. and it’s truly horrendous. Further examples of shocking statistics are the predicted 2:1 plastic/fish weight ratio in our oceans by 2050 or the current 2:1 plastic/plankton ratio in many areas of the ocean. Even in what appears to be healthy ocean environments the myth is soon dispelled with fairly rudimentary equipment, revealing seas actually brimming with micro-plastics. Further wake up calls for change are presented when marine biologists examine dead sea birds (many still in infancy) revealing stomachs in many birds full of nearly 300 different pieces of plastic in all shapes, colours and sizes. I’ll stop here with the examples but suffice to say there are many, many more (and they’re all equally shocking). The Documentary itself navigates the globe shooting from multiple locations to give us a sense of the all-encompassing immensity of this marine catastrophe, this is after all not a localised issue but a world crisis and its indeed pointed out to the viewer that the oceanic currents covering the globe reinforce this fact – thus we don’t actually have oceans but one big Ocean covering the majority of our planet (and life depends on it).
The documentaries human element comes in the back stories of the documentarists, Craig Leeson’s childhood relationship with the ocean in Tasmania and life as a journalist, Tanja Streeter’s visit to Tuvalu (noted as a perfect microcosm of the Earth) to see the destruction to environment and people’s health alike, meetings (her new born in tow) with scientists discussing the abundance of micro-plastic particles in our food-chain and the future we want for our children as parents, combined with further features such as children living and working next to (and on) refuse filled seas in the Philippines. The prescient points are not hard to see. Perhaps the people involved in this Documentary didn’t have the resources to create the gloss of a BBC Nature-style production for example but what they do present here is a more direct, frontline call into action against the hard and shocking facts.
Of course the challenge (and aim) of a documentary like A Plastic Ocean is not just to lift the veneer and enlighten us to the urgency of the situation but to also engage and install a notion of hope (and not hopeless futility) in the face of such distressing imagery. An endless 90-minute stream of depressing images, science, facts and statistics should but sadly probably wouldn’t motivate people to act, we need to know we can make a difference and in fact I felt sometimes more positive images of sea life in its natural environment wouldn’t have detracted from the gravity of the Documentaries message but actually have given motivation towards an example of an equilibrium that we can strive to re-establish, a goal to aim for and also have taken a little flatness out that surfaced occasionally in the Documentary. After all, the message needs to engage for it to work, and to be fair positives are shown to us such as examples of drives to re-use and recycle plastic in Germany that are actually working and in Rwanda where plastic bags aren’t even used at all, or in Hong Kong were the public came out en masse to clear up their own beaches after a spillage from sea containers due to a heavy storm. The galvanisation of communities is what creates change on a local level, and in the internet age the hope of course is that this translates onto the global community’s combined responsibilities at large.
The trump card in engaging a response in A Plastic Ocean is perhaps that fish is mankind’s largest source of protein, the broken down plastic particles (which attract toxins) are active in the all sea life, they eat it and we eat them – it’s in us too, fact. Choose to ignore the fate of sea life at your ignorance, choose to ignore the fate of the seafood on your plate at your peril. This message hopefully breaches the notion of distance we have from what’s happening because its only potential is to get worse if ignored. As the director points out, you just need look around your home or workplace and you’ll see the very products responsible for this problem in the first place, plastic is omnipresent but it wasn’t always the case. What became the solution to all our domestic needs in the last century has become the perfect environmental disaster in this one. In the documentary we witness Craig Leeson food shopping and thus revealing just how hard it is to avoid plastic, be it take away or domestic food shopping – in fact it seems nigh on impossible.
As a piece of documentary cinema A Plastic Ocean demands not an abstract, intellectual engagement or response but a very real, front-line call to arms to intrinsically change our modes of lifestyle, to take our cue from the sea and thus create our own tidal shift, to get our daily lives back in sync with the rhythm of the planet and to be prepared to do this on even the smallest level, to traverse the notion of separation, to give serious thought to even that plastic cover on the top of your next flat-white. Being a Documentary with a mission means being part of a wider project and to that effect A Plastic Ocean already has schools programmes up and running, a website (plasticoceans.org), a UK based charity Plastic Oceans Foundation and inroads towards positive relationships are also being created with companies responsible for the production of plastic products. Brunel University of London are also running a survey in conjunction with the documentary. A Plastic Ocean will be on general release in January 2017 but the Documentary’s trailer is already out there, let’s hope it goes viral and that change begins here.