May 27, 2014

By Courtney Mattison

A new documentary is making a splash at film festivals around the country and it’s heading to California. Angel Azul – a feature length environmental documentary from Passelande Pictures directed by Marcelina Cravat – explores the plight of Caribbean coral reefs through the work of renowned sculptor and reef conservationist Jason deCaires Taylor.

Angel Azul takes viewers from Taylor’s dry, cavernous concrete sculpture studio 20 minutes down the coast from Cancun to the warm azure waters offshore, where the artist has installed hundreds of life-size statues in the seafloor to serve as artificial reefs that aggregate fish and provide safe spots on which baby corals can settle and grow. Taylor’s hauntingly beautiful works also draw tourists away from the natural reefs nearby, which are struggling to survive the panoply of threats imposed by climate change, disease, nutrient pollution and other human-caused impacts. The plight of coral reefs is apparent throughout the film, which begins with a heartfelt statement from the artist:

We have a countdown on our natural reefs at the moment. Scientists are predicting that in 50 years we would have lost almost 70% of our natural reefs, which is quite a heavy statistic. I kind of want to set in stone how we knew this was going to happen so that in 50 years time, when people look back and say ‘They knew! Why did they not do anything? Why did they not take action?’ I want it to be immortalized there in stone that we knew this was going to happen and we were responsible.               – Jason deCaires Taylor

This sense of responsibility is reflected in the faces of Taylor’s sculpture subjects – mostly local townspeople – who are cast from life and immortalized nearby in the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA), a monumental underwater contemporary art museum in the waters surrounding Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Punta Nizuc. The film tracks the production and installation of one of Taylor’s most striking works titled Reclamation, which features a nude woman with outstretched arms adorned with angel wings made of purple sea fans that were scavenged from the seafloor.

Reclamation © Angel Azul

Reclamation by Jason deCaires Taylor © Angel Azul

Cravat’s playful yet deliberate filmmaking style contextualizes the creation of Reclamation – presumably the “angel” in the film’s title – within the larger goals of Taylor’s work and the acute threats to coral reef health. As invasive algae begin to smother the hundreds of existing underwater sculptures at MUSA, environmental experts including Dr. Sylvia Earle deliver an urgent message about the solutions necessary to save reefs while narrator Peter Coyote provides further insight into how our choices will decide the fate of these exquisite and valuable ecosystems for generations to come. In a deft combination of science, art and diplomacy, the film reveals how the statues act as barometers for water quality as algae proliferates in areas of poor wastewater treatment – an issue that has troubled the region for decades.

The Dream Collector

The Dream Collector

Beneath the corals, sponges and algae, the statues’ gestures range from humorous to pointedly political, with evocative imagery that includes a reproduction of the artist’s own father sitting at a desk archiving messages in bottles in The Dream Collector as well as a man kneeling with his head in the sand in The Politicians. Ultimately, each piece will forever be a work in progress as corals and other invertebrates settle and grow on its surface. Taylor says, “Really when I put them in the sea that’s just the beginning of the process.” Perhaps the ever-changing nature of these works reflects our evolving understanding of our relationship to the marine environment.

Inheritance by Jason deCaires Taylor © Angel Azul

Inheritance by Jason deCaires Taylor © Angel Azul

By tracking the completion of Taylor’s Reclamation, the film leaves viewers with a message of hope “… that we will face with honesty our proper place as a species on this planet; hope that our collective efforts will come in time.” We have a limited window in which we can reverse coral reef destruction. As Peter Coyote puts it, “Nature’s calling. Are we listening?”

Learn more about Angel Azul HERE.

In the Bay Area? Here are three chances to catch a screening:

June 3: San Francisco Green Film Festival

June 20: Mission Cultural Center

June 24: Reel to Real Film Series at the David Brower Center

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