The Epoch story of humanity
f the many technical wonders that we see in Anthropocene: The Human Epoch—if wonder is the right word—the Bagger 288 might be the most aweinspiring. A bucket-wheel excavator that crawls implacably across the vast Tagebau Hambach open-pit coal mine in Germany, it looks like a gargantuan shopping mall on wheels that ravages and consumes the Earth. If you dropped it into Blade Runner 2049, it would stretch credulity.
“Talk about scale,” comments Jennifer Baichwal, calling the Georgia Straight from Ottawa. “That mine has destroyed towns and highways in its expansion, but the Bagger is the largest human-made machine on the planet. Each one of the buckets in that wheel can hold a small car. That’s how big it is. We were trying to shoot it, and whenever it moved, the ground shook. We used to think the sublime came from nature, these majestic forces of nature, but in that case nature is dwarfed by human creation. Here is this massive, terrifying thing that is made by us.”
Following Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013), Baichwal has again teamed with Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky to produce a ravishing, meditative document of our precarious moment in time. Nature dwarfed by human creation is the very theme here. Opening Friday (October 12), the film travels the globe to collect evidence—sometimes obliquely, often with a strikingly alien eye—that the Holocene Epoch has been superseded on the geological time scale by the impact of humanity. Hence, the Anthropocene Epoch, as measured by climate change, terraforming, the production of “techno-fossils”, and a host of markers currently being observed by the international Anthropocene Working Group.
Shooting over five years, Baichwal and her partners take us to that strip mine in Germany but also to the lithium evaporation ponds of the Atacama Desert; a church in Lagos built to hold one million people; and the opening ceremonies of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland. A visit to the mining town Norlisk 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle saw the filmmakers detained and harassed by Russian authorities. “Palladium is in every cellphone,” Baichwal says. “All of our work is really trying to connect you, in an experiential way, to places that you’re implicated in but would never normally see.”
Anthropocene also surveys what’s left of the old-growth forest near Vancouver Island’s Port Renfrew (which had Baichwal thinking: “I can’t die without spending more time in that landscape, but maybe it’ll all be gone”), while a quarry in Carrara, Italy, provides an image to contrast the Bagger.
Pyres of elephant ivory tell us about The Human Epoch in Anthropocene.
Like an ant with an oversized crumb, a loader-hauler wrestles to shift a chunk of marble three times its size. It’s an eerily touching picture of the tenacity we extend toward plundering our one and only planet. Other ironies abound. In China, an oilfield is defended from rising sea levels by a never-completed concrete wall, like a demented argument between technology and nature.
Still, Baichwal is eager to point out the complexity coded into these images.
“There’s always been ambiguity: for example, in Burtynsky’s photographs,” she says. “People always say, ‘How can you make something beautiful of something terrible?’ And, in fact, the ambiguity is the key to the experience, because if these images were not compelling, then they wouldn’t invite you to contemplate. Through contemplation comes a kind of shift in consciousness, a recognition of your own connection to the places. If our work was polemic or didactic, we’d be preaching to the choir.”
Crucially, the film is bookended with the astonishing vision of elephant tusks sorted and collected into enormous pyres stretching across a field in Nairobi’s National Park. It’s hard to know at first what to make of it, besides grief. What Baichwal recalls is just one of the persistent stories she encountered of the powerful human will to do good.
“It feels utterly apocalyptic,” she remarks, “but it’s a positive thing. The whole point of that burn was to send a message that there should be no trade in ivory, period. Again, the complexity of standing in front of the piles that represent the deaths of seven to 10 thousand elephants so that people can make fucking trinkets for their mantelpieces—there’s that—but then there’s Winnie Kiiru, who’s devoted her whole life to saving this species. So I guess that’s what I’m saying. There were little breakthrough moments of hope, all the way through.”