“Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky, 126 minutes, 2018
The last thing we see in Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, the devastatingly important documentary made by filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier and photographer Edward Burtynsky, is a text dedicated to Sudan, the name of the last surviving male northern white rhino. He lived to be 45 years old—90 years in human terms—and died in 2018. The text comes at the end of the four-and-a-half-minute credit sequence that suggests the complex geographical and technical range involved in producing this unprecedented documentary. Sudan had appeared earlier in the film, eating grass behind an armed, camouflage-uniformed policeman who had been assigned to protect him from poachers in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Another policeman notes the irony of the position they’re in. “We are protecting wildlife,” he says, “but at the same time we feel we are the enemies because we are human, and humans are the poachers.” Throughout its 90-minute length, the documentary confronts us with overwhelming evidence of our complicity in causing the dire conditions of the world in which we are now living. The first thing we see—and the event that is the film’s framing device—is the ivory burn that occurred in Nairobi National Park in Kenya in 2016. It’s an elemental Dantesque inferno that lasts for 40 seconds. Emerging from the flames are glimpses of something burning, and before long we are shown what the fuel was: 105 tons of elephant ivory and 1.35 tons of rhino ivory that had been confiscated from poachers by the Kenyan authorities. The mounds of ivory are all that remain of 6,500 elephants and 450 rhinos. As Dr Winnie Kiiru, a biologist and activist, says about the burning material, “This tusk will never hit the market, it will never make a trinket, it will never become a mantelpiece. I was not able to stop this elephant from dying but I’m certainly able to stop it from being desecrated further.”
When you initially encounter Sudan, the white rhino, you don’t know exactly what you’re looking at. The full screen is filled with grey striations and furrows that could be an aerial shot of any one of a number of degraded, heavy-industry landscapes documented in the film. At the centre of the grey area is a black oval, which moves imperceptibly just before the shot changes, and in the next image you realize that what you’ve just observed is a close-up of Sudan’s blinking eye. It is camouflage of a different sort, an example of the way the documentary argues its case through shifts in scale and perspective. The film provides short written locations that tell us where we are in the world, but what we can’t measure is our physical relationship to what we’re being shown. If the landscape is Brobdingnagian, then we continually find ourselves playing Lilliputs in a world of our own destruction. The first example of this disproportion occurs 320 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Siberia, where we see a young man lift his companion over a pipeline so they can climb to the top of the hill and survey the landscape. When they get there they are like figures in a Caspar David Friedrich landscape, small humans encountering an overpowering nature. The difference is that nature has been replaced by industry, the hill they are on is a slagheap and the view is of Norilsk, the most polluted city in Russia and home to the largest heavy-metal smelting complex in the world. The camera sequence is a 40-second-long, slow moving pan that stays focused on the industrial buildings and smokestacks that are the city’s most prominent architecture. The same couple, or another one, is seen in a later shot, where they embrace in a treeless field dotted with low-lying, scabby bushes. It’s like a contemporary and dystopic version of Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with a Calm, except that here the shepherds and equestrians have been replaced by crane operators and smelting plant floor-workers relaxing in the smoggy sun.
In this sequence and throughout the film, de Pencier’s camerawork is impeccable; he keeps pulling back until the scale of what we’re seeing becomes evident, and, more often than not, the effect is to diminish our size in relation to the spaces in which we are located. The irony is that despite our smallness, we are the cause of huge and potentially irrevocable changes in every environment. De Pencier’s technique is effectively deployed in the Carrara marble quarry. The first thing we see is a white wall filling the frame, as if it were the surface of a Borduas painting. (It could also be one of the photographs Burtynsky took in granite quarries in Barre, Vermont, and marble quarries in Italy between 1991 and 1993.) But de Pencier begins a slow pan that climbs up and then pulls back, until a minute and a half later, we see small trucks on the highway and the sun breaking over the top of the mountain of marble. It is a vision made exquisite in being miniaturized. The final image is like a finely rendered grisaille painting. The camera then cuts to ground level, where the gargantuan size of the machines and the blocks of marble that we saw working on the slow pan become apparent. The film keeps giving us different perspectives on the places and situations that it documents.
This shift from the vista and panorama to the most intense close-up is deliberately confusing and critical to the film’s strategic instability of recognition. The sequence of the Houston oil refineries begins with a flash from a flare stack and then a series of shots that seems to be set in a glittering and golden city. (The film is superbly edited by Roland Schlimme.) After a minute the perspective shifts to the storage tanks and the machinery of the refinery, and their careful inclusion makes it seem as if Charles Sheeler were in a dark mood when he abandoned precisionism to make industrial movies. Similarly, the aerial sequence of evaporation pools in the lithium mines in Chile—they go from delicate turquoise to acidic yellow—turns the desert into a version of a modernist abstraction. But when the camera moves down to a dinghy with two workers measuring the rate of evaporation in the brine pond, you see how toxic the solution is. Then de Pencier pulls way back and ends with a shot of the same dinghy, now a speck in what seems an endless landscape of identical ponds.
In the Anthropocene, movie and epoch, scale begets scale—the notion is almost Biblical—and its progression accounts for the size of the project as well as the way it is realized. The only way to guarantee that the subject was paid proper attention was to make it singular and arresting. This prerequisite determines that whatever the filmmakers looked at, whether activity or site or consequence, had to be the largest of its kind. So the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland is the world’s longest railway tunnel; the Atacama solar project is set in the driest desert in the world; the Hambach coal mine in Westphalia is the largest open-pit mine in Germany and uses the largest land machines ever made by humans; and the Dandora landfill in Nairobi is among the biggest in the world. Each of these projects is extreme and exceeds anything we could have imagined. The scale of what we’re seeing, and the skill of its cinematic delivery, beggars belief. How are we to process machines that can carve out 240,000 cubic metres of earth every day; or conceive of 10,000 kilometres of potash tunnels under the town of Berezniki, Russia; or measure what the daily emission of 16 million tons of CO2 actually means?
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is only one part of a much larger project, which includes concurrent exhibitions at the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, as well as an exhibition catalogue and a 236-page book published by Steidl that reproduces over 100 of Burtynsky’s archival pigment prints. Nothing can give an adequate sense of the mesmerizing clarity and complicating beauty of his photographs other than seeing them on exhibition, but this book is the closest you will get to experiencing their sheer power. Again, scale is a defining issue. I have made a number of references to other artists and art forms because Burtynsky, de Pencier and Baichwal are artists themselves, and they work diligently in their respective disciplines to produce the most attractive images they possibly can. This is both a virtue and a danger; in making us pay attention, they run the risk of aestheticizing disaster. Each of them is aware of this possibility and has clearly made a determination that the attention is preferable, and more useful, than the alternative. Once you’ve got an audience in the house, then what you’ve accomplished can begin to do its work.
So why, at the end of this artful, ambitious and admirable film, am I left with a feeling of having been let down? I have screened it three times and on every occasion some new detail and subtlety emerges. I think the problem is not a failure of the film, but a consequence of the magnitude of its subject. The deadening weight of evidence is far greater than the lift of optimism with which the film wants to conclude. When we hear Alicia Vikander’s voiceover tell us that “the same tenacity and ingenuity that has helped us thrive as a species will ensure our survival,” we are justifiably skeptical. She tells us that “we now dominate over 73% of ice-free land because of mining, agriculture, industrialization and urban growth”; that “85% of the forests on Vancouver Island have been cleared, fragmented or degraded for human use”; that every year “humans extract between 60 to 100 billion tons of material from the earth and remove more sediment than all the rivers of the earth combined”; that carbon monoxide levels are higher than in the last 66 million years; and that while coral has existed for 450 million years, ocean warming and acidification “has caused widespread bleaching and could eliminate all coral by the end of the 21st century.” Delivering this kind of information through the course of the film has made her Cassandra; to turn her into Elpis, the Greek goddess of hope, is a fateful miscasting.
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch doesn’t want to end with the bang of pessimism, so it settles for something slightly above a whimper of hope. Music has been used effectively throughout the film: in the gospel/rock evangelism for a million worshippers in the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Lagos, Nigeria; in the excerpt from Mozart’s Don Giovanni that accompanies the dramatic cutting and moving of marble blocks in Carrara; and in the overall contributions of Rose Bolton and Norah Lorway, the composers and performers of the film’s sensitive score. But as the credits roll we hear “Making Progress” by the Canadian indie rock band Rheostatics: “Right now, we are making progress, we are making dreams come true, just like we discussed in our recent letters, communiqués, measures, of memories and treasures, kept in bricks and mortar,” Tim Vesely sings, and then continues with, “I won’t last forever, I won’t even try to. I’m just making progress. I don’t know what else to do.”
The film didn’t, either. Jennifer Baichwal’s writing has been smart and economical, but she finally lets down her guard. Sentiment replaces evidence; human goodness trumps human greed. At the end of the film, the voices of the workers, scientists, activists and displaced villagers are only faint echoes. What rings in your ears is the conflagration of the ivory burn. In the echo of that reverberant roar, my inclination is to substitute Vesely’s lines with earlier ones from “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem written almost a century ago by WB Yeats. The poem begins with a poignant lament: “Many ingenious lovely things are gone / That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude.” Among those things are the “famous ivories” of Phidias, the fifth-century BC sculptor, painter and architect who worked on the Acropolis and whose statue of Zeus at Olympia was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. His art is included in the legacy of loss that both enraged Yeats and rendered him heartsick. As a truer and more accurate measure of the effect the human epoch is having, I’d suggest that Vesely’s tentative assertion of progress be replaced with Yeats’s summary and unblinkered question. “But is there any comfort to be found,” the poet asks and then offers this disturbing answer: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?” ❚