The Epoch story of hu­man­ity

The Georgia Straight - - Movies - By

OA­drian Mack

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.”

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