Workers in underground potash mine in Berezniki, Russia 2018 | Photo by Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

TIFF Review: ‘Anthropocene: The Human Epoch’

The culmination of a major body of work

8 mins read

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)

Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier document the devastating consequences of human activity in Anthropocene. In a way, they’ve been documenting it for nearly fifteen years. Anthropocene is the third installment in the team’s epic trilogy of spectacular environmental essay films that began with Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013). The latest film is the culmination of a major body of work and it’s as visually stunning and intellectually invigorating as the previous two films are. Anthropocene, admittedly, is also a film they’ve made before—although they’ve never quite made a film on such an astonishing scale as this one.

While Watermark benefited from its clear focus on the lakes, rivers, and other bodies quenching the earth, there isn’t much to immediately distinguish Anthropocene from Manufactured Landscapes aside from the discernable advances in camera technology. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Landscapes one of the best documentaries ever made — and the similarity between the films highlights the superior craftsmanship that allows the trio to capture the scale of human activity with sweeping grandeur.

Manufactured Landscapes has some voiceover as talks with Burtynsky insert his thoughts sporadically throughout the film like artistic statements. Anthropocene, on the other hand, has Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) explain the human epoch in layman’s terms while the images present the awesome scope of humanity’s destructiveness. Landing Vikander is an impressive coup for this production, and further proof of the significance of the trilogy in addressing environmental concerns. The didactic National Geographic style narration, while used sparingly, isn’t really necessary because the imagery is so powerful, although it did help settle a to-may-to/to-mah-to debate that began in the press and industry line about whether the title was An-thro-po-cene or An-throp-o-cene. (Vikander used the latter pronunciation.)

Matters of scale are the focus of Anthropocene as the film examines the life that humans drain from the planet as they pillage its resources with unrestrained fury. The gist of the era of the Anthropocene is that contemporary civilization entered a new period with the escalation of human industry, land development, and resource extraction that significantly altered the natural harmony of the Earth’s ecosystem. (For a much stronger definition and distillation of the new era, read an essay by Michael John Long in the new issue of POV.) The Anthropocene is, visually, the natural extension of the polluted and unnatural corners of the globe captured in Manufactured Landscapes. 12 years later, it’s clear that the rate of activity isn’t slowing down. It’s ramping up, and Anthropocene urgently uses the visual power of cinema to remind audiences that the Earth’s beauty isn’t theirs for the taking.

The film begins with one effective example in Kenya of the rate at which humans needlessly and violently pillage the Earth’s natural wonders. Tens of thousands of elephant tusks form piles that one could easily mistake for family-sized huts. A guide passionately explains to the camera how these tusks are bounty confiscated from poachers, who continue to hunt elephants for ivory that can be sold at lucrative prices. The smell of death permeates the film as the cameras take in these tusks, which were stolen to make trinkets and statues but instead sit discarded as mementoes of human wastefulness.

Other eye-popping moments arise as Anthropocene tours the globe and takes in lithium evaporation ponds in Chile’s Atacama Desert that transform the landscape into a patchwork quilt of unnatural colours. The film takes audience deep below the Earth’s surface for a rapid train ride through the world’s largest tunnel in Switzerland. Russian miners joke about their work habits in one of the film’s few moments of candid, light-hearted human activity. In Germany, the film witnesses the world’s largest excavation rig transform entire villages into coal mines. An angry woman in the town guides the filmmaking team through the village’s last stand as people become powerless to the battering ram of industry and see their lives and histories turned into rubble.

The centerpiece of the film whisks audiences to Carrara, Italy where Anthropocene observes resource extraction on an operatic scale. The camera catches a backhoe wrestle the with mountain as workers mine marble. The truck kicks up its heels as the front end grips the white rock and rips a portion from the mountainside. The camera pulls back from the tussle and zooms out to let the full magnitude of the operation occupy the screen. Switchback roads mark the mountainside and the extent to which humans have ripped these elements from the earth. The marble mine begins the shot as an object of beauty ends as something violent and horrifying. One beauty is at the expense of another.

Anthropocene brings the signature lyricism of the Baichwal/Burtynsky/de Pencier oeuvre as the stimulating cinematography implores one to look at the world anew. A trip to the London Zoo presents numerous animals who are either endangered or at the point of functional extinction. The implication is that humans will inevitably join the list of bygone creatures that once roamed the Earth. The difference is that these beautiful animals didn’t deserve their fates. We do if we continue at the rate we’re going.

There are elements of hope to be found in Anthropocene as the film reminds us of our responsibility to the land and waters that make us thrive. Facing extinction, humans need to see these images to understand the cost of the lifestyle many of us enjoy. One hopes that humanity survives long enough for the filmmakers to capture our return.

Anthropocene opens theatrically beginning Sept. 28.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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