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At 'Chasing Coral' screening, an environmental alarm goes off

On Thursday evening, a few hours after President Trump had left open the door to reenter the Paris agreement, a group of people gathered in New York City to confer on an environmental crisis. They had just watched “Chasing Coral,” Jeff Orlowski’s new documentary about dying coral and the threat it posed, and they had many comments and questions for a post-screening panel.

“One thing we need to do is decarbonize buildings,” said a man who identified himself as a sustainability engineer.

“Have you thought about screening in aquariums?” asked a woman who called herself an aquarium enthusiast.

“How do we get people outside their head? What’s the call to action? It feels like we don’t have to be passive consumers about this,” said actor and environmental activist Adrian Grenier, who moderated the panel.

The movie won the audience award at Sundance in January, and from the crowd’s reaction at the screening, which took place at the Explorers Club in New York, it was easy to see why.

“Chasing Coral” makes a surprisingly moving plea on behalf of the dying ocean bed. It centers on the filmmakers’ and several scientists’ efforts to document, via jury-rigged underwater cameras, the “bleaching” of coral — the whitening and death of it because of rising ocean temperatures. Netflix released the documentary worldwide Friday.‎

The movie focuses particularly on an eager-eyed young man named Zack Rago, a “coral nerd” who spent much of his Colorado upbringing obsessed with the stuff. Rago is seen participating in dives at ocean spots like the Great Barrier Reef only to watch them deteriorate in front of his eyes.‎ ‎As florid color gives way to flaky white death, he becomes increasingly distraught about the fate of the ocean.

The loss is tragic on poetic grounds — coral is the only skyscraper-like structure built by any living beings that are not human — but also on environmental ones. Coral is a self-feeding system that’s literally at the bottom of our food pyramid. As much as one-quarter of the sea depends on coral as part of its ecosystem; if it dies, so could many up the chain, including human beings.

Orlowski, who previously made the glacier-themed “Chasing Ice,” said he wanted to depend on techniques similar to those used in environmental documentaries such as “Blackfish” that rely on emotion to jolt people into awareness. (There is also a new song, performed by Kristen Bell, added post-Sundance.) The director said he struggled with how much despair to put in this film; afterward, he told a reporter that “the reality ‎was far worse than what we showed and the means for solving it far more hopeful."”

To a question from the audience about what could be done, he said, “There is no single thing that each of you needs to do. There are dozens of things.”

Rago, who has helped create a coral-themed school bus he takes to classrooms around the country, said he’s had a lot of success with virtual-reality exhibits. “A lot of kids will never get to see the ocean, so you’re cultivating their curiosity,” he said, adding that it was good to give them a stake in cleanup efforts. “It’s like they weren’t part of the party, and now you’re asking them to clean it up.”

Ocean Agency founder Richard Vevers, who appears in the film as a voice of scientific warning, urged the audience to reframe its thinking on climate change activism.

“What I love is this is a moneymaking opportunity,” he said. “More people‎ need to look at climate change as an opportunity to be healthy, an opportunity to make money, an opportunity to improve lives.

“We need to be creative in how we think about it,” he added of citizen responsibilities, “rather than think of them as horrible tasks we all have to do.”

Grenier offered his own ideas on activism. “How many people have divested from oil,” he asked the crowd. “Call your financial advisor and ask to divest from oil.” He told the audience about his charity, an initiative aimed at wiping out plastic straws, called Stop Sucking.

The Explorers Club is a place of a certain early 20th-century charm, with hidden chambers and passage. It’s filled with artifacts of past exploration-eras and eager elderly hobbyists wearing T-shirts imprinted with messages like “Here’s ‎Looking at Euclid.”

The choice of venue made sense: Orlowski has striking underwater footage that makes the coral come alive and turns a movie screen into a suboceanic aquarium.

The director, who also had shown the film to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said he had a plan called “Chasing Congress” to show it to all 535 federal representatives. He also urged everyone in the crowd to find a friend and invite him or her over to watch a screening. “You can be casual, like let’s have dinner or a beer and check out this movie. I don’t know anyone who’s anti-ocean,” he added.

Grenier noted that the work was hard. “You have to put in the time. Everybody wants convenience,” he said. “We have to wrestle the instinct for convenience.”

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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