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Film Fest Opinion Reviews SCAD

‘The Human Element’ approaches the environment on a human level

District Staff

By Maggie Maize

James Balog uses his camera to bear witness to human hands in the changing elements of water, air, fire and earth.

Balog’s photography used to “celebrate elegance” in nature. But soon after, the conviction to capture “visual evidence” for the changing environment won out. The visual records show “people are changing the other elements, fast.”

The feature documentary begins with the element of water. Balog is acquainted with this element from starting the Extreme Ice Survey in 2005. The survey project used time-lapses to capture changes to land while ice melted. He uses the evidence to educate people who otherwise wouldn’t see it.

The elements are divided into sections, providing a strong structure. Each section zooms in onto everyday lives that have been altered by nature. Balog and the people he interviews balance narrative, fact and concern for the future which culminates in a deep tension that remains well after the film ends.

 Not only does this film medium reveal how Balog works on sites, but it also intensifies his work by situating it in context. His final product images, like the testimonies, are more impactful in a larger body of work. Video also allows narratives to flow directly from people’s mouths, passing along the human connection.

The director, Matthew Testa creates and maintains a tasteful tone throughout the feature which helps traverse the weighty topics like water invading coastal towns during high tide. The documentary does not point fingers or manipulate, but instead rallies passion and urgency to intervene. Some interviewees use their platform to convey messages to leaders and peers.

The micro view on environmental afflictions reveals the complexity of the issues. “The Human Element” recognizes and handles dualities well. Whether it’s foliage beside scorched land, air providing life and causing harm or the pride and death coal mining brings, the intricate representation is satisfying. The film is full of authentic dichotomies that further deepen the themes of complexity, problem-solving, and humanity.

Hazy clouds drift up, which with the air then the camera pans to the side, revealing a forest. It’s obvious now, that puffy cloud is a plume of wildfire smoke. From section to section, the transitions are visually and logically seamless. The last element, earth, connects back to Balog’s family history in coal mining. Returning to his own vulnerability, only hinted at before this element, Balog rounded out the theme of continuity.


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