Landmark Moment

We have our own geologic period. But it’s nothing to be proud of

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
Roxy Theatre
Opens Friday 26

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is more than a film. It’s part of a larger project that includes art exhibitions, virtual and augmented reality, a coffee table book with photographs and essays by filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky and Nicolas de Pencier (along with fresh work from Margaret Atwood), and an educational program that will take the film’s message to schools across Canada and possibly beyond.

The project illustrates the conclusions of the Anthropocene Working Group, an international body of scientists that argues humanity, as a species, has become so advanced technologically that we now operate as a geological force inflicting permanent change on our planet.

Narrated by Alicia Vikander, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch captures many breathtaking sequences: a picturesque German town destroyed to allow a coal mine’s growth; a marble pit in Tuscany, used to produce countless knock-off Roman sculptures; a pile of tusks set on fire in Kenya to deter poachers. All indicators of distress.

I interviewed Baichwal, Burtynsky and de Pencier at the Toronto International Film Festival. They don’t finish each other sentences, but come damn close.

The visuals in Anthropocene are stunning. Can you take me through the selection process?

Burtynsky: Everything we choose to photograph is a stand-in for a larger human activity. We try to find large examples because in that largeness there is a chance to find that surreal quality, something visually compelling we can get a frame around, and can carry the viewer into that activity.

I keep going back to the camera pulling out to reveal the magnitude of the marble pit.

Baichwal: We’re always playing around with the revelation of scale in a way that’s comprehensible in a time-based medium like film. It’s been a preoccupation for us since Manufactured Landscapes, as well as finding the human moments or stories that illuminate the whole.

De Pencier: Anthropocene is not just line and form and looking at these things almost from space. Even a place that represents an environmental catastrophe, there are still humans there. It doesn’t mean they are guilty or evil.

What was the hardest shot to achieve?

De Pencier: Sometimes, the hardest thing is getting access.

Burtynsky: The drone shot of the tusk piles. Minutes before the president of Kenya had called and said “Okay, you can go.”

Baichwal: Getting access to Norilsk (a closed industrial city in Russia) took us over a year. Then there was the difficulty of putting the story together in the editing room. We don’t work from a script, so sometimes it feels like an overwhelming task in terms of structure. We wanted just enough information contextually that you would understand what you were looking at.

Your film reminded me of a line in Ready Player One, “People stopped trying to solve the world’s problem and started trying to outlive them”. Do you share that analysis?

De Pencier: Hope, Ed?

Burtynsky: One could make an argument for hope and one for hopelessness. The map is well defined as to where to find hope, but the road is a difficult one. There are all kinds of obstacles, like special interest groups sitting at the doors of government making sure every policy change is to their benefit. As science becomes more solid and is taught more broadly, people recognize change is afoot and all indicators say we are at the core of that change.

Baichwal: I believe we have the ingenuity to change. As for collective will, it comes from understanding.

You all share director credit. Is there a conflict resolution process in place in case disagreements arise?

De Pencier: We all get along [Burtynsky and Baichwal snicker]. We’ve been doing it for 14 years. I don’t think a project of this scale could’ve been done by any of us individually. We need to rely on each other and our complementary skillsets. There is a fruitful discussion happening at all time and largely we’re aligned. Hopefully that consensus makes the final message stronger.

If you had an extra $100,000 in your budget, how would you have spent it?

Baichwal: Advocacy for a plastic bottles deposit in Ontario.

Burtynsky: Or rolling out our educational program.

De Pencier: I don’t think we have a regret of scenes that got away. There are places we didn’t get permission for, but then you pivot. The one thing we didn’t represent was nuclear, which is one of the Anthropocene working group categories.

Baichwal: Nuclear particles are everywhere — lakes in Peru, ice in Antarctica. It’s a human signal that’s all over the world. But that makes more sense to [the scientists]. It’s not visual.

Burtynsky: And showing an atom bomb, a mushroom cloud, it’s been done.

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