Original-Cin Q&A: w/Anthropocene's 'Three Horsemen (Horse-humans?) of the Apocalypse'

Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky - the co-directors behind the documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch- are on a mission. They want everyone to look up the word, “Anthropocene.”

Not to undermine them, but Anthropocene refers to the belief by many geological scientists that we have left behind the Holocene Epoch (post-Ice Age) and are entering the Anthropocene, a period in which the planet’s state is marked by the activities of a single species – homo sapiens.

Dandora Landfill, Nairobi, Kenya

Dandora Landfill, Nairobi, Kenya

“All of our distributors said, ‘Are you married to the title?’” de Pencier says. “But if every new word or phrase represents a new way of thinking, maybe it’s our proselytizing mission to make Anthropocene a household word and have people expand their consciousness.”

Jennifer Baichwal

Jennifer Baichwal

Anthropocene is a logical conclusion to an acclaimed trilogy for Baichwal, de Pencier and photo-artist Burtynsky. It began with 2006’s Manufactured Landscapes, which took Burtynsky’s singular obsession with images of man-made geography (slag heaps, horizon-filling e-waste landfills in China, etc.) and brought it to the screen with a kind of beautiful ugliness. It continued with Watermark, chronicling human water practices around the world, reservoirs, dams, “controlled flooding,” etc.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is larger in scale than its predecessors, taking the crew to six continents and 20 countries to chronicle human impact on everything from open pit mines to the dying Great Barrier Reef.

Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek spoke to Baichwal, de Pencier and Burtynsky on the day Anthropocene opened at the Toronto International Film Festival, three weeks before a supporting exhibition was to open simultaneously (this week) at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

ORIGINAL-CIN: Well, if it isn’t the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (All laugh). Or maybe there’s a more gender-neutral term.

EDWARD BURTYNSKY: “Horse humans of the apocalypse?”

OC: It’s kind of paradoxical that your movies are so beautifully shot, considering the dire and disturbing realities you show.

BAICHWAL: “I think there’s something compelling about these environments. I’m not going to say it’s beauty. We’re trying to take people to places they’re connected to, but would never see normally, just like we did in Manufactured Landscapes.

And in doing that, we present these places in a compelling way to reach a different level of understanding, instead of just saying, ‘Look at these terrible places!’”

Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky

BURTYNSKY: “A long time ago I recognized I’m not a landscape photographer, I’m a photographer of human systems imposed upon a landscape. ‘This is a mine, it’s designed by people who understand the complexities of the fractures and they have to do it a certain way.’

“So, it’s a designed landscape, the manufacturers that are processing it are industrial designers who are designing machinery that can break it down. Our cities are designed. This hotel room is designed. I like to think of it more as visually compelling, whereas beauty is more culturally specific. A visual compelling archetypal response to these landscapes is a more interesting way to engage them.”

OC: This does seem a natural end to the trilogy. Did you always have it in mind?

BAICHWAL: “Ed and I were in Washington showing Watermark, and we said, ‘We should do something together again,’ and we were talking about different ideas. I said, ‘What about Anthropocene. Nobody knows what the word means, and that’s a good place to start.

“To think that we, the species, have built our modern civilization in 10,000 years, and now we are the biggest force on the planet. To all systems. That is the research that the Anthropocene Working Group has been gathering for the past 10 years. If we really are in a new geological epoch because of our impact, that’s significant.”

OC: Everybody loves superlatives, the biggest, the best, the worst. You go in that direction a lot, with for instance, ‘the most polluted city in Russia.’ (Norilsk). Did they win a contest or something?

DE PENCIER: “When you Google ‘Most polluted cities in the world,’ Norilsk is in second or third place.”

BAICHWAL: “Yeah, the Blacksmith Institute, which is now called Pure Earth, puts out a list of polluted places, and Norilsk was on that list for years. It has the biggest rare Earth and heavy metal smelting outlets in the world.”

Nicholas de Pencier

Nicholas de Pencier

DE PENCIER: “They don’t scrub out the sulphur dioxide, like they do in Sudbury. When we stepped off the plane in Norilsk, our eyes were streaming and we were coughing and choking. 

“We realized we were right downwind from one of the stacks, so it wasn’t like that all the time. But then, even in the hotel where we were staying, which was right next to the daycare, sometimes the smoke would just come.”

OC: And then you were at the world’s biggest landfill in Kenya.

BAICHWAL: “It’s actually East Africa’s biggest landfill, but it’s probably one of the biggest in the world, in the top-10. 

“It’s about scale. In order to make a point about all these things, we spent more than a year researching, asking ourselves, ‘What are the biggest examples of these incursions? What do they look like? Do they pack a punch visually? Are they going to convey what terraforming actually looks like?’

“So, it’s the biggest open pit mine in Germany, the biggest land machines on the planet. But then all that has to be paired with tiny details, little moments - the farmer whose farm is being displaced by that mine, the person who is working in the Dandora landfill site who wants to be a rapper.

“It feels that without that balance, that dialectic of scale and detail, you could just be overwhelmed by it.”

Workers in underground potash mine in Berezniki, Russia

Workers in underground potash mine in Berezniki, Russia

OC: A counterpoint to this is The World Without Us, that showed how quickly nature would overwhelm and bury evidence of our existence if we ceased to exist.

BAICHWAL: “And how is that supposed to happen?”

DE PENCIER: “Nuclear war, some sort of disaster. It might happen quickly, and that’s one of our observations too. Who knows how the Anthropocene ends? That’s the part we don’t know. How does this story end? How long is the Anthropocene? It might be quite short. It might be that the planet ends up in some pre-human state

BAICHWAL: “Slime-based creatures take over the Earth.”

BURTYNSKY: “And the Rolling Stones, who’ll still be around.” 

(All laugh)

BAICHWAL: “Ed refers to us as ‘fleshy transients.’”

OC: So, the scientists are trying to get Anthropocene approved. Approved by who?

DE PENCIER: “The International Commission on Stratigraphy is the larger body that they belong to, a very conservative group of geologists that are responsible for the delineation of the whole geological timescale.”

OC: And if they do decide Anthropocene is a thing, what happens next?

BAICHWAL: “It will precipitate a reckoning. Elizabeth Kolbert said in The Sixth Extinction that if it gets ratified, every geology textbook in the world will suddenly become obsolete and will have to be rewritten.”

OC: Finally, you had Alicia Vikander do a last-minute narration. How did that happen?

BAICHWAL: “It was just that she couldn’t record it until a week before our first press screening, because she was away and traveling. We’d been thinking about who was the right voice for this film. And it was literally listening to a bunch of actors, and I really wanted it to be a woman who we respected, and she was at the top of the list. 

“We don’t work with casting agents. We make documentaries. So, I didn’t realize how difficult this kind of thing normally is. We asked her, she was interested but she couldn’t do it until a week before our screening.

“Nick had to go to Spain and meet her and I was in the studio at 4 in the morning, waiting for them to record. Then we cut it in, finished at 10 at night. It went to Technicolor in order to be ready for the press screening. So, we were cutting it really close.

“Were so happy that she agreed. She is an environmentalist and has such empathy in her voice and a hopefulness that is really necessary. Because it’s such a heavy film.”