If Dante had filmed the Inferno on his iPhone, it would look like this | Francine Prose

If Dante had filmed the Inferno on his iPhone, it would look like this | Francine Prose


To have lived through the last few decades is to have, in our minds, an all too accessible video library of historical nightmares. The assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK. The collapse of the Twin Towers. Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. The 6 January insurrectionists swarming the Capitol building. We can call up these scenes whenever we choose. They haunt us, uninvited.

The latest grim addition to that ineradicable collection is a video that surfaced, days ago, of a tourist ferry sailing across the water from the raging fire incinerating the Greek island of Evia.

The second-largest island in Greece, not far from Athens, Evia has (as I write this) been on fire for a week. It is – or was – a natural paradise of forests, mountains and clear streams, popular with the tourists who prop up the country’s shaky economy.

This summer, fires have broken out in an Athens suburb, in the Peloponnese, in Turkey, southern Italy, Montenegro and Siberia. Some say that arson has been involved. In North Macedonia, there were arrests. But the most skillful arsonists couldn’t arrange the long drought and extreme heat that have fueled the ferocity and speed of the devastation. However these fires started, climate change has been the accelerant.

Unless our own homes are in danger, we may become overwhelmed, even numbed, by the sheer number of droughts and blazes currently scorching the earth. Every news program features an orange sky, the charred toppling trees, homes reduced to smoldering charcoal, tearful survivors consoling themselves: at least they’re still alive. Every evening we watch someone’s house – a Belgian’s, a Nebraskan’s, a Mexican’s – bobbing down a churning river.

Sadly, it takes something special, something unusual, to stand out from the nonstop evidence of the damage done by climate change. If the Evia fire ferry video seems extraordinary, it’s not only because of what it shows, but because of how it shows it – because of its strangeness.

At first the video is simply disorienting. It takes a while – it took me a while – to figure out what I was seeing.

In the video, it’s night-time. The open space beneath the roof of the deck, through which we and the passengers can see beyond the ferry to the burning shore, is rectangular. It frames the disaster. It’s like a drive-in movie screen. We are watching a real catastrophe over the heads of an audience.

The clip has been viewed almost 2m times, and the phrase “disaster film” keeps recurring in people’s descriptions. That may be the first thing you think of: real death and destruction are being framed by the night sky and the design of the boat to look like a big-budget Hollywood production, like one of those catastrophe films of the 80s and 90s.

The crowd is hard to read. Perhaps some passengers are suffering, perhaps some have lost their homes, but most seem like vacationers who’ve had their holiday interrupted. Not happy, but making the best of it, milling about and chatting.

What adds to the senses of unreality are the passengers filming the burning island on their phones. It’s like seeing the fire in a hall of mirrors, the large screen reflected in dozens of little screens, up in the air, like antennae. I used to find it annoying when people felt compelled to record every experience, but courageous Darnella Frazier’s film of George Floyd’s murder has convinced us: certain things need to be documented.

The video of the ferry off Evia almost seems like art: a surrealist mini-film of a dream being enacted. Oddly theatrical, it recalls the staged photographs of Gregory Crewdson, the vistas of Thomas Struth, the landscapes of Anselm Kiefer, Bruegel’s Mad Meg charging through a flaming world.

But if it’s art, it’s found art. It is not imaginary, it’s real. The fires in California and the American west are burning as I write this.

As disturbing as it is, the video of the ferry is something I want people to see: the most viral video ever. I want it to keep interrupting the everyday pleasures and distractions that we (understandably) keep desiring.

Except for researchers and scientists, humans can only think about climate change for part of the day, though surely it’s more present for the victims of disaster. Still most of us sense that something isn’t right. The stifling nights, the tornadoes, the struggling farms, the rising price of food, the surging and ebbing pandemic.

Perhaps what makes the film clip so scary is also a matter of timing. The Greek fire video surfaced around the time of the release of a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That document states definitively: We are on the brink of too late. Unless we dramatically reduce our emissions and our dependence on fossil fuel, our world will soon become “a hell”.

The ferry video is a vision of hell. It’s as if Dante filmed the Inferno on his iPhone.

This is what climate apocalypse looks like from the deck of a tourist boat. It’s a vision we need to see, a reminder that the hard work of keeping our planet from becoming hell can’t be put off any longer. We have run out of time. We need to wake up. We need to say it till somebody listens: something has to be done.



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