Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

(Screengrab from official trailer)

‘Anthropocene: The Human Epoch’ Leaves Little to the Terrified Imagination

The third in a critical environmental series, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is long on form – leaving little to the imagination – but short on crucially important content.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier
Mercury Films
28 Sep 2018 (CA)

In a 2016 New Yorker profile of Edward Burtynsky, the “Canadian photographer known for his sweeping images of industrial projects and their effects on the environment,” staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian makes a special point of noting that the much-celebrated artist’s work has not gone completely uncriticized. At issue has been the question of whether or not Burtynsky’s images – usually shot with large format film and digital medium format cameras and aerial assistance of one sort – unduly aestheticize the environmental degradation they depict. For example, as Khatchadourian explains, “a critic responding to [Burtynsky’s 2009 photobook] Oil wondered whether the fusing of beauty with monumentalism, of extreme photographic detachment with extreme ecological damage, could trigger only apathy as a response.” He adds: “Where Burtynsky’s epic industrial landscapes are least successful, they convey beauty and immensity without being intellectually engaging.”

How much one appreciates Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, the new documentary co-directed by Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier and the third installment in this series, will depend greatly on how one feels about such appraisals. Those affected by Burtynsky’s “fusing of beauty with monumentalism” are likely to be moved by the film, warts and all. Those who share the criticisms of his work, however, will likely find the experience trying and be far less forgiving of those warts.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is the third collaboration between Burtynsky, Baichwal, and de Pencier, following 2006’s Manufactured Landscapes (directed by Baichwal) and 2013’s Watermark (co-directed by Baichwal and Burtynsky). Impressionistically shot on Super 16mm film by cinematographer/producer de Pencier, Manufactured Landscapes makes for an effective cinematic translation of Burtynsky’s work while also offering some impressive visual flourishes of its own – most notably, the now-iconic tracking shot through a massive Chinese factory that sets the whole film into motion. On a purely technical level, Watermark appreciably raises the bar by shooting in 5K ultra-high-definition with prototype RED cameras. Otherwise, though, this look at Burtynsky’s exploration of water is just more of the same – albeit without a sequence quite as fresh and spectacularly arresting as that Manufactured Landscapes opener.

Though the three films are spoken of collectively as a trilogy, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch represents a significant departure from Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. While the earlier films focus a substantial amount of attention on Burtynsky and his technique, complementing the images with context and glimpses into his artistic method, the new one excludes him entirely as a documentary “character”. In so doing, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch not only breaks with its predecessors but also loses one of their strengths: distance, or at least some semblance of it. Though neither Manufactured Landscapes nor Watermark meaningfully critiques Burtynsky’s work, their ostensible position outside his process of looking in does invite some thought about his whole photographic project. With Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, though, Baichwal and de Pencier’s project becomes completely indistinguishable from Burtynsky’s; their projects are now the same. Indeed, if Watermark closed most of the distance between the filmmakers and their subject by adding Burtynsky as a co-director, then Anthropocene: The Human Epoch closes it completely by taking him out of the frame altogether.

This decision probably has a lot to do with the obvious crossover aspirations of the three filmmakers; not only does the subject’s enormity call for a proportional creative treatment, its gravity demands that they magnetize an audience. Accordingly, the documentary is just one part of The Anthropocene Project – an ambitious transmedia endeavor that also includes a book, interactive storytelling elements, and a travelling art installation (which opened simultaneously at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa this fall). “We have reached an unprecedented moment in planetary history. Humans now arguably change the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined,” Baichwal, de Pencier, and Burtynsky explain on the project’s official website. “Combining art, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and scientific research, [this] project investigates human influence on the state, dynamic and future of the Earth.”

With Burtynsky and his process omitted this time, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (the film) doubles down on the transcendent imagery, shot once again in ultra-high-definition with cutting-edge tools. In addition, the documentary tries a somewhat new structure, organizing itself into seven vignettes: “Excavation”, “Terraforming”, “Technofossils”, “Anthroturbation”, “Boundary Limit”, “Climate Change”, and “Extinction”. This sequencing allows the filmmakers to broaden out further than they did before, covering an even wider variety of vulnerable areas and industrial wastelands, as well as a few points of hope, around the world. Following the unwritten rules for documentaries made at a certain price point, there’s also a celebrity narrator: Academy Award-winner Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, Tomb Raider).

The elegiac voiceover is so completely unnecessary here that it’s distracting; though the star power is meant to take things up a notch, it’s detrimental to the film from the very first lines. In addition, without the interludes featuring Burtynsky at work, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch‘s imagery grows monotonous. (In particular, aerial photography wears thin by the end.) Also, because the film covers so much ground, it often leaves us wanting far more information about what we are shown. A sequence about marble quarrying in Carrara, Italy, for example, is beautifully rendered but doesn’t communicate anything of substance about the environmental impacts of the practice.

Worse still, other scenes, like one featuring a lithium mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert, are precisely the obtuse abstractions that Burtynsky’s critics have found fault with. The images of a dinghy floating on sickly green-colored water play with shape and color in aesthetically striking ways, sure… but what, if anything, are they contributing to our understanding of the environmental damage we are seeing?

Burtynsky, Baichwal, and de Pencier seem to have made Anthropocene: The Human Epoch to move the needle on environmental stewardship. As Cinema Scope‘s Steve MacFarlane points out in his film review, it “ends on a note of complicity-for-all before announcing that the Anthropocene is yet to be approved by the International Union of Geological Sciences as a classification for this epoch.” The filmmakers don’t explain why that is, nor is it clear that their images are what’s needed to remove whatever doubts there may be about humankind’s responsibility; all the spoliation that we see in Anthropocene: The Human Epoch looks very bad, of course, but visuals alone don’t make for a slam dunk case. Indeed, if Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History has effectively demonstrated the reality of the Anthropocene, it’s because the author is so precise and thoroughgoing in her research. While Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is long on form, it’s short on this kind of crucially important content.

To be fair, some individual images and scenes are powerful. In particular, the way the filmmakers’ lens an enormous drill at a mining excavation in Immerath, Germany, suggests something out of a science fiction dystopia. Even for those well aware of the extent to which human ingenuity has been turned against the planet, it’s a viscerally jolting sight. More images like this, paired with evidence-based argumentation, could be incredibly effective at galvanizing much-needed collective action. As it stands, though, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch mostly proves the points of Burtynsky’s critics.

RATING 5 / 10