Jacob Whatley takes photographs at the water's edge in Iceland.

Documenting the Death of a Glacier, and a Community’s Pain

In Iceland, Duke students film ‘A Funeral for Ice’ to capture the emotional grief of climate change

Jules Odendahl-James, director of academic engagement for the arts & humanities and chair of the faculty committee for the Benenson Award, said in the nine years she has been working with Benenson there have only been a few collaborative project applications. Most are individual applicants.

“As rising juniors, the combination of their skills and history of connection/collaboration made a compelling case for their award, as did their shared investment in the subject matter for this film,” said Odendahl-James.

Suzie Post-Rush, a lecturing fellow at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke who recommended Rizavi for the grant, said her work was “beyond the quality of anything else produced that semester.”

“My recommendation was based on her, more than on the content of her project. That said, I thought the project she and Jacob proposed was both highly relevant and timely. Global warming is an issue that is impacting our world so dramatically, and finding a way to make that a story we can all relate to felt important and newsworthy,” Post-Rush said.

The idea to shoot the film first came to Razivi last summer during a Duke in Denmark Summer Program, when she became interested in ecological grief. She read about funerals being held for glaciers around the globe and reached out to Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe, Rice University anthropologists who organized the Ok Glacier funeral in 2019.

“This was a story that approached climate change from a very different angle. Instead of making it something abstract, it put it into human terms and something that made us feel closer to the environment, made us feel more passionately about the environment around us and so I thought that this was a story that needed to be told,” said Rizavi, who spent the summer in Belgium on an internship with the International Crisis Group.

Ok was the first in Iceland to lose its status as a glacier in 2014. Ok is not the only glacier to do so. The Pizol Glacier and the Basodino Glacier, both in Switzerland, the Clark Glacier in Oregon, and the Ayoloco Glacier in Mexico all have been declared dead. Each has a plaque at the site commemorating them. The one at Ok reads in part: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

All funerals have taken place between 2019 and 2021. A study by Swiss researchers suggests that between 2017 and 2050, about half of the glacier volume will disappear.

The students interviewed glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson. He declared the glacier deceased and wrote the death certificate.
The students interviewed glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson. He declared the glacier deceased and wrote the death certificate.
Duke students Jacob Whatley and Kulzoom Rizavi setting up a shot for the documentary.
Duke students Jacob Whatley and Kulzoom Rizavi setting up a shot for the documentary.

Whatley and Rizavi spent days on what is left of the glacier, hiking and filming, as well as conducting interviews. Having 24 hours of sunshine made filming a lot easier. At the same time, carrying 50 pounds of equipment up and down a mountain was challenging, said Whatley.

They initially imagined the story as being one-dimensional: “A loss had occurred, a glacier had died, people are sad, and we need to advocate for this to stop happening,” said Rizavi.

But Whatley said he was surprised by the response they received from the people of Iceland.

“The most striking thing was how the locals responded to the funeral and their experience with it. A lot of them were almost annoyed (about the ceremony) because the locals were not informed or even asked about it. They saw it as a way of using this landscape as an opportunity to push a certain agenda,” Whatley said.

The original plan was to create a 10-minute documentary about the glacier. However, they have decided to create a trailer as a springboard to create a feature-length documentary that will explore the other glaciers that have been declared dead. The UN General Assembly has declared 2025 as the year of glacial preservation and the two hope to release the documentary then as a tool for advocacy.

“Documentaries have the power to move people to advocate for change, to advocate for tangible change to actually change policies and make legislative changes happen,” said Rizavi.