The Heartbreaking Horror of Garbage Island in New Doc ‘Midway’

A devastating documentary on the Pacific garbage patch is a sobering reminder: We can’t ignore this problem forever.

The Pacific Garbage Patch: New Documentary ‘Midway’ Depicts the Heartbreaking Horror of Garbage Island

The problems caused by the Pacific garbage patch can't be ignored forever. (Photo: Wolfgang Poelzer/Getty)

A Canadian ex-pat with a passion for pop culture, Carly is a multi-published author, public speaker and screenwriter.

We’re all familiar with the saying, “out of sight, out of mind,” but Seattle photographer turned documentary codirector Chris Jordan couldn’t ignore Midway Island anymore. Situated in the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the island is a habitat to countless albatross birds—and it’s quickly turning into a bird graveyard, courtesy of tons of plastic waste. Touched by the beautiful wildlife but horrified by the destruction of the environment, Jordan set out to shoot what is now a documentary film called Midway, which debuted earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Fest.

“It started as a photographing project,” says codirector Chris Jordan. “I’ve been taking photographs of giant piles of garbage with the intention to make all of us face our collective shadow and look at the collective destruction that we’re all participating in together. I learned about the Pacific Garbage Patch, which struck me as another of these invisible mass issues. There’s just no way to experience it, and yet scientists are telling us there’s millions of tons of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. And now, they’ve been studying the Atlantic, and the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. All of the world’s oceans are filled with plastic—yet it’s invisible.”

So Jordan decided to bring some attention to the issue. His first hurdle? You can’t even see most of the garbage. The patch is surfacing “like the tip of an iceberg in this incredibly macabre and viscerally powerful and symbolic way, inside the stomachs of dead baby albatrosses on this incredibly remote island,” he says. 

First-time director Jordan captured hours of footage of the birds amid the garbage, but knew he needed support in creating a narrative. That support came in the form of Sabine Emiliani, the editor responsible for bringing March of the Penguins to life.

“This isn’t typical documentary filmmaking,” says producer Stephanie Levy. “I see this film like a beautiful love story. It’s about the beauty of our planet, cherishing this beauty, and the message that the albatross delivered to us as the poets of this beauty. This whole experience has educated me and made me more of a conscious human on so many levels, and we really hope to share that with the world.”

Which is a key component to how the film is presented. As Jordan explains, “Much of activism is about trying to change people’s behavior, and the stance of trying to change people’s approach—‘Here’s the problem, here’s the solution, and you should do the solution that I tell you.’ But there are a lot of smart people who are saying what it takes right now is a radical global change of behavior. It’s too late for any incremental progress that the kind of other movements have been able to be satisfied with. We’re getting to the deadline. We need radical global shift. And so how do we achieve that? Through radical global change of consciousness.”

And to him, Midway is a part of that.

“I want to help people feel something,” Jordan says. “That’s the missing link: feeling something. Because feeling is our connection with the world. When we feel something, then we’re connected with that thing.

“And you’re present,” Levy adds. “Because when you’re there with it, then you can take responsibility for it.”

And to the creators behind Midway, that’s how change happens. Here’s hoping they’re right.

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