There’s a lot to like about PROJECT: ICE, a new feature length documentary about the Great Lakes of North America, now making the rounds on the festival circuit. It’s part history, part folklore and part geology lesson, all beautifully shot over the course of 27 months from 2011 to 2013.
First off, it’s a fascinating history, documenting the area from its geological origins as a massive chunk of ice to the pivotal role the lakes, and the people that would be attracted to the shores of what’s become known as the U.S. ‘North Coast’, played in the westward expansion and industrialization of the U.S. and parts of Canada.
The Great Lakes –Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario—the film reminds us, contain a staggering twenty percent of the planet’s fresh water. Lake Superior, by area the largest continental lake in the world, itself holds ten percent of Earth’s fresh water supply. Collectively, they cover a surface area of 94,250 square miles, or 244,106 square km, roughly the size of the United Kingdom.
As lakes go, they’re massive. Unless you’ve spent time near one –I lived more than twenty years of my life less than a 15-minute drive from a shore of Lake Erie—you can’t imagine just how large they are. You can’t see the other side; with their strong currents, large waves, distant horizons, legendary storms and significant depths, they are, for all intents and purposes, inland seas. And as such, play a crucial role on their immediate environment, home to 25 million people in the United States and 8.5 million in Canada.
As the title suggests, the film is framed by ice: on one end, by the large retreating ice sheets that formed the lakes’ basins 10,000 years ago, and on the other by the profound disappearance of ice on the lakes in recent years.
The latter isn’t the story that Washington DC-based filmmaker William Kleinert, a veteran of six documentaries, necessarily set out to tell. But it’s the one that ultimately emerged.
“We kept hearing the same stories from different people, about how the climate was changing, about the mild winters, the lack of ice,” Kleinert said after a screening at the Ohio Independent Film Festival earlier this month.
That said, the film isn’t ‘about’ Global Warming per se. Kleinert in fact chose to avoid delving into many of the complexities of climate change, choosing to tell that story through the stories told by the interviewees themselves, a diverse group that included local fisherman, small town mayors, hockey players, coast guard captains, regional historians, adventure tour operators and even a photographer.
That’s not to say that the scientific perspective and ecological impacts of global warming are ignored. Kleinert brought on Marie Colton, a former director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), and Henry Pollack, a scientist at the University of Michigan and contributing author the IPCC climate change report that won the Nobel Prize in 2007, to discuss the ecology of the lake system and how its been affected by climate change, and the likely direction the impact is heading.
The film is also just as much about how this part of middle America, those large swaths of land, water and shore almost dismissively referred to as flyover country, has evolved and developed. With its tales of ice-fishing, ice climbing and ice hockey, there is an appealing small town-like sensibility emanating from the film. At 119 minutes it could have been too long, or a bit too ambitious. But I wanted more. And that’s not a bad thing.
In short, PROJECT: ICE is important as a history of this corner of the planet – and critical as a look at the impact climate change is having on it. I hope it finds the distribution it deserves.
In the Ojibwe, or Chippewa language, ice means the ‘blood of the earth mother’.
Commercial and sport fishing on the Great Lakes contributes more than $4 billion annually to the basins’ economies.
and, a sad fact about Ohio and its relationship with Lake Erie brought up during the post-screening discussion: the entire state of Ohio has half as much public access to Lake Erie than the city of Chicago has to Lake Michigan.