Transcending the Human Epoch

Phosphor Tailings Pond #4, Near Lakeland, Florida, USA 2012. photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Transcending the Human Epoch

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is a sobering documentary about humanity’s reengineering of the planet. Ahead of its screening at COP26, Atmos speaks with filmmaker Nicholas de Pencier about the creation of the monumental project.

In 2014, when filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky started working on their next project, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a documentary that explores humanity’s massive efforts to reengineer the planet, little could have prepared them for the scale of the work they were about to take on. Four years in the making, Anthropocene—which also consists of an educational program focused on helping students in classrooms better understand humanity’s impact on the planet as well as a touring photographic exhibition—is a sobering reflection on the breadth of the damage and devastation humanity continues to inflict upon the natural world.

 

Ahead of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch’s screening on November 2 as part of COP26’s cultural events programming, Nicholas de Pencier speaks with Atmos about the urgent reasons behind the film’s creation and what he hopes new audiences can learn from its sobering depiction of planet Earth.

Transcending the Human Epoch
Dandora Landfill #3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016 photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Daphne

How does a project as monumental as Anthropocene: The Human Epoch come about?

Nick

I’m going to try not to give a long droning answer because it was kind of complicated, but the Anthropocene project is very much a collaboration between my partner Jennifer Baichwal, myself and our good friend, the photographer and filmmaker, Edward Burtynsky. We had already collaborated on projects that centered around environmental themes and had agreed with each other’s worldview and artistic practice as a way to explore some of what we think are the most pressing themes of our age.

 

As we were finishing our previous film, Watermark, we started wondering about the next project that we could work on together. We decided that the idea we wanted to explore was the vast scale of the effects that humans are having on the planet—to the point where there is an argument to name a unit in the geological timescale after ourselves. To us, this was a really mind-blowing and fascinating principle.

 

Straight superficial research led us to the Anthropocene Working Group of scientists, who we ended up meeting. And they very generously invited us to a number of their working groups and meetings as they convened around the world. We became fascinated with their areas of research, so the chapters in the film are based around their projects—like technofossils and anthroturbation, the tunnels that humans make in the Earth for mining and subways that will be evident in fossil records long after we are gone. Humans change the surface of the Earth more than all the natural forces combined; more than the erosion of rivers, mountains and all other natural forces that have had a primacy in the Earth’s dynamics for millennia.

“Humans change the surface of the Earth more than all the natural forces combined.”

Nicholas de Pencier

Nick

This was fascinating to us as filmmakers and photographers. In a way, the film became a collaboration with those scientists. We are trying to visualize the necessary research that they are doing as well as graphs, reports and data and sometimes things that don’t riffle out into public consciousness as much as mass media like photography and film.

Daphne

You mentioned that it was a collaborative project, not just between the filmmakers, but also with the scientists. Am I right in thinking it took four years to shoot Anthropocene?

Nick

We didn’t actually film for four years, but the project certainly was a four-year project. We did easily a year of just straight research to get up to speed and feel confident in the kind of scientific interpretation that we were doing. We wanted to make sure we applied all of our acumen and rigor into choosing the locations and the themes and the stories that we thought would resonate with a wide audience. That was an enormous amount of work. And then we also had to try and get access to places where people often don’t want cameras that show their dirty coal mines or polluted cities. That’s the unglamorous part of the work.

 

But then the payoff, when you’re diligent and tenacious, is that you do get access. Often, people would understand and respect, at least on a meta level, what we were trying to accomplish. It  wasn’t accusatory, it wasn’t an environmental rant. The philosophy of our filmmaking was more about witnessing places and actions that we are all responsible for, but don’t usually get to see. And so to be able to bring these rarer viewpoints back to a wider audience, we hope it might help catalyze a shift in consciousness for people who see the film.

Transcending the Human Epoch
Elephant Tusk Burn, Nairobi National Park, Kenya, Courtesy of Anthropocene Films Inc. © 2018.
Transcending the Human Epoch
Smelting operations at NorNickel factory, Norilsk, Russia Credit: Photo courtesy of Anthropocene Films Inc. © 2018.

Daphne

You’ve already mentioned the scope of the project, and I guess that refers to the issues addressed as well as the range of locations and voices you feature in the film. How did Anthropocene—including all of its storylines—evolve over time?

Nick

We wanted to push the boundaries of storytelling farther and offer a more prismatic possibility of viewpoints. And so from the beginning, we wanted to publish a book. We actually ended up making two books as well as a whole educational program. There’s a fine art exhibition that involves video installations, augmented reality, virtual sculptures and photographs, which is still touring the world. Then, of course, there’s the documentary film and a photographic essay.

 

Somehow we all survived—and we’re extremely proud of the results and the ways in which Anthropocene came out into the world. There’s no greater gratification for us than the programmers at COP26 deciding that this film would be a rallying touchstone in the middle of all of those high-level negotiations. That people will step out of the negotiating room for an hour and a half to have this experience on a big screen so they get a sense of scale—because it really is about scale when we’re talking about humanity’s effect on the planet. That’s the ambition for this film, it’s always been the ambition: to change people’s consciousness, to get people talking, to build a community. So we’re very happy about that.

Daphne

I want to come back to this idea of changing people’s consciousness. But before I do, I want to speak about the film’s placement within your body of work. Anthropocene is the final part of a trilogy, is that right? It follows Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. Can you talk about how Anthropocene builds on your other two documentaries?

Nick

We didn’t set out to make a trilogy. We initially came together for the first time when Jennifer and I decided to make a film—in a way—about Edward Burtynksy’s photographic essay on the industrialization of China, a film we ended up calling Manufactured Landscapes. It was through the crucible of that experience we decided that we had a lot to learn from each other and our respective practices about translating these broader themes and issues of environmentalism and environmental degradation. So it was a more iterative process, where Manufactured Landscapes begat Watermark, which Ed codirected.

“We wanted to push the boundaries of storytelling farther and offer a more prismatic possibility of viewpoints.”

Nicholas de Pencier

Nick

It’s only in retrospect that I would say, Oh, wow, we actually made a trilogy that has a trajectory and a progression. I don’t think any one of us could have made Anthropocene: The Human Epoch on our own. It’s just too big. It’s also with hindsight that you realize we, as humans, are going to have to solve our own problems. There isn’t going to be one heroic person who’s going to come up with an answer. We’re absolutely going to have to learn to come together on solutions, to collaborate, to form communities, because the problems are not easily solved and they have to be solved together.

Daphne

I imagine the scope of the issue you were exploring and the film itself was a very real challenge when it came to the practical side of creating it. Where exactly did you end up going, and how did you decide on the locations that you wanted to shoot?

Nick

We all work in visual, lens-based media, so a lot of it came down to what are the most powerful aesthetic choices we can make to make the story impactful. For example: we decided that potash mines  were an interesting way to represent anthroturbation, which also feeds into terraforming. In Canada we have lots of potash mines and we could have easily knocked on their door—but they’re this very dull gray color. It just so happened that in Siberia, Russia, there are these psychedelic, beautiful, patterned potash mines. We had a research room with a massive board on the wall filled with images of possible places we could travel to, and we were constantly battling back and forth; knocking things off and then running into dead ends for access. That’s essentially the journey of the film. It’s never fully written until it’s absolutely finished and is screening at the first festival, because you can always keep changing it right up to the last edit.

Daphne

Interesting. And, on a more personal level, what shocked or surprised you the most while working on this film?

Nick

Google Earth is such a wonderful research tool—so that can take  away some of the surprise. Having said that, I remember landing at Hambach coal mine, this dirty, massive lignite mine in Germany, a country that is often considered a leader in alternative and renewable energy sources. Yet, they’re still ripping out the forest and ripping out medieval towns to make way for the voracious machines that burn this incredibly dirty coal. There’s nothing that can prepare you for standing as a tiny, fleshy human in the middle of that and just going, Holy shit. It’s that experience we’re trying to convey by taking the very best cameras to try and record the scale and sound of the problem.

 

I will also say that, despite deliberately seeking out examples of extreme environmental degradation and putting ourselves in the middle of it, I never felt hopeless about the overall situation. Even as you stand there and you realize, This is just business as usual. It’s how we have all collectively designed our planet and it has to change. It really doesn’t work. And so, by witnessing these places and committing them to film and bringing them back for everyone to see, I am hopeful that we can achieve the shift in consciousness that we’re trying to engender.

Transcending the Human Epoch
Workers in underground potash mine in Berezniki, Russia 2018 photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Daphne

This actually brings me on to my last question. In Anthropocene, one of the people that you interview talks about the fact that the detrimental impact our actions are having on the planet needs to be communicated as powerfully as possible. I wonder whether you can talk a little bit about what you hope will be the takeaway for people who watch Anthropocene, a very powerful documentary on the current state of the plant, at COP26?

Nick

My greatest hope is that the people who come to the screening to see the film at COP26 will leave with a renewed commitment to tackling the environmental challenges we face as a species. They are not abstract. They are very real and they are very pressing. And so doing nothing is not an option.

 

The film is deliberately not prescriptive because I think that the solutions to the challenges are countless. There’s such a multiplicity of possibilities that depend on where you live and what you do in your life, on what your capacity or your capital might be. I would certainly hope that people would be inspired to spend some of that capital—be it time, be it money, be it expertise—in the direction of solving problems. But it would be, I think, far too reductive and overly simplistic for us, from our situation as Toronto-based filmmakers and photographers, to try and prescribe a kind of panacea.

Transcending the Human Epoch
Aerial view of phosphor tailing ponds near Lakeland, Florida Credit: Photo courtesy of Anthropocene Films Inc. © 2018.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is screening at 12:30 GMT on November 2 in the Cinema Auditorium, Glasgow, as part of COP26’s Green Zone Programme of Events.

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