There is a scene in Anthropocene: The Human Epoch where the camera hovers on a concentric circular motif – a giant bloodshot eye, amidst an abstract swirl of red, blue, yellow, white. As the camera pulls back, the pattern fills the screen yet remains inscrutable. What are we looking at? Finally, zoomed away, we can place ourselves in the Russian potash mine, the circles on the labyrinthine walls stamped by the boring machines that have sculpted this otherworldy landscape.
The abstract landscapes that human activity has conjured – whether through digging, dumping, deforesting, or dredging – is the subject of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, the latest work by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier. The documentary plays out in surreal images, many of them aerial shots of the tapestries we’ve patched together and many more closeups – such as the flickering fire that engulfs the film’s first few minutes. Narration by the actress Alicia Vikander wafts in here and there to provide the larger context beyond these pictures (that humans have altered 80 percent of our forests, driven up CO2 levels to the highest they’ve been in 66 years, and have brought about the the sixth extinction), and intermittently, the documentary also includes interviews with the people who toil in these places.
The film is an argument: it seeks to establish that we are no longer in the Holocene era but have moved into the Anthropocene – an epoch whose defining characteristic is that humans are now shaping the Earth more than all natural systems combined. And we are doing so beyond all recognition. The major themes of this argument, as captured cinematographically, are: Extraction, Terraforming, Technofossils, Anthroturbation, Climate Change, and Extinction.
The images are stunning, in that they are both astounding and terrifying for their devastating significance. The machinations of progress are behemoth and frightening – in Immerath, Germany, an entire community’s homes are being torn down for what’s referred to as the biggest excavation in the world: the coal mine is expanding and requires the extra acreage to build an artificial lake. The bulldozer working the coal mine resembles a city on an army tank – its conductor says it weighs 12,000 tonnes and boasts 160-kilowatt propulsion. In Norilsk, Siberia, aerial footage lays out the oil-rig city, a dystopia where bathers take the only beach they can get – one littered with debris – and kids ride their bikes around the network of pipelines. Here, on “Company Day,” families pose for pictures on Caterpillars while a hokey ensemble sings a corporate anthem on the main stage.
But many of the images are also breathtaking, jaw-dropping, even beautiful – like the potash mine, and like the lithium lakes of Chile – giant pools of green, yellow, aqua. In Carrara, marble quarries stagger to the sky; one of the men there has been working the stone for decades, and recalls that what a single machine can do in a day – extracting a boulder of marble from the massing – used to take a labourer weeks to achieve. In Switzerland, Burtynsky and team capture every angle of a journey through the world’s largest tunnel – sideways, upside down, travelling through it – and in China, a seawall of concrete modules is installed to protect oil production of Chengdu.
The film ends with the fire that flickers at its start. The tusks of 10,000 illegally hunted elephants are being stacked into sculptural pyres, and the Kenyan government, along with the non-profit group Hands Off Our Elephants, are setting them ablaze as a deterrent against future poaching. This image is devastating; it follows a sequence that highlights animals we’ve brought to extinction or near-extinction – species that we can only observe at the zoo. If we’re bringing about the seventh extinction – our own – the film doesn’t linger on this note. Instead it, or Vikander’s voiceover, implores us to pull these massive, manmade systems back.
But how? We depend on all of these systems presently, and for our brighter future; those lithium lakes give us our cellphones and electric cars. Even if those mounds of technofossils – the 30 trillion tons of manmade plastics that fill up landfills – keep growing.
As humans have progressed – living longer and better in more parts of the world – we’ve done so at the expense of the environment. What’s needed is political and popular will – a bold stance to redesign the world, if only for our own species’ survival. But this resolve has proven elusive, as Nathaniel Rich’s recent New York Times piece “Losing Earth” made clear. A few years ago, Naomi Klein put forward the Leap Manifesto, but do we have the imagination to reconceive our capitalist systems? That, of course, is another film. If Anthropocene: The Human Epoch’s primary objective is to establish the Anthropocene era, it has succeeded. Together with Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark, it is a monumental document that cannot be countered by even the most bald-faced climate denier.
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is screening at TIFF (last dates are September 11 and 12). It is also an exhibition (first mounted at the AGO, from September 28 to January 6, now on at the National Gallery of Canada, until February 24, 2019).