March 18, 2019

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Show, don't tell

Beautiful environmental documentary opts for powerful visuals over facts and figures

The saturated colours, the rhythmic patterns, the sublime scale: Seen through the estheticizing lens of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, open-pit mines, mineral evaporation ponds and oil refineries take on a strange dystopian beauty.

It’s disturbing that environmental devastation should be so stunning, but that’s the controversial paradox at the centre of the documentary collaborations between Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal.

Building on the thematic concerns and technical achievements of Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013), the final entry in their environmentalist trilogy (with contributing cinematographer and producer Nicholas de Pencier) gives extraordinary visual expression to the growing scientific consensus that we are living in the Anthropocene epoch, in which human activity is transforming the Earth’s geology and ecosystems more rapidly and radically than all natural processes combined.

Anthropocene is an advocacy doc that plays like an arthouse doc. Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider) has been brought in as the celebrity narrator, but her words are sparse. While the filmmakers use some Al Gore-style facts and stats, their argument is conveyed primarily through visual means.

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The saturated colours, the rhythmic patterns, the sublime scale: Seen through the estheticizing lens of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, open-pit mines, mineral evaporation ponds and oil refineries take on a strange dystopian beauty.

It’s disturbing that environmental devastation should be so stunning, but that’s the controversial paradox at the centre of the documentary collaborations between Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal.

Building on the thematic concerns and technical achievements of Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013), the final entry in their environmentalist trilogy (with contributing cinematographer and producer Nicholas de Pencier) gives extraordinary visual expression to the growing scientific consensus that we are living in the Anthropocene epoch, in which human activity is transforming the Earth’s geology and ecosystems more rapidly and radically than all natural processes combined.

Anthropocene is an advocacy doc that plays like an arthouse doc. Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider) has been brought in as the celebrity narrator, but her words are sparse. While the filmmakers use some Al Gore-style facts and stats, their argument is conveyed primarily through visual means.

This show-don’t-tell approach is highly cinematic, with long contemplative sequences punctuated by sudden moments of shock or sorrow or even strange, surreal humour.

We watch the choreographed mechanical ballet of industrial processes. We see aerial footage of scarred extraction sites that resemble abstract paintings. We even take a trippy Op Art journey through the longest traffic tunnel in the world, blasted through the base of the Swiss Alps.

Following the filmmakers’ multi-year global odyssey, we travel from overflowing landfills in Nigeria to failing coral reefs in Indonesia to vast lithium-extraction operations in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The film brings environmental issues close to home for Canadian viewers with a brief scene set in the old-growth forests of British Columbia.

There is also oblique comment on how these vast industrial projects affect human life. We meet some of the fatalistic residents of the most polluted city in Russia, an isolated smelting company town that celebrates a summer holiday — "Happy Metallurgy Day!" — with peppy songs and grinning mascots.

In Germany, we watch as family farms, historical buildings and rooted communities are torn down so the country’s largest open-pit mine can become even larger. At this metastasizing site, the biggest excavating equipment in the world gouges out earth, the machinery so unimaginably massive it looks like a bad CGI effect — an imaginary contraption from some preposterous steampunk sci-fi flick.

These sequences are loosely grouped under several section headers, as the film explores issues such as terraforming, climate change and extinction rates.

Detractors of Burtynsky, Baichwal and de Pencier’s approach might wish for more detailed quantitative data — though, as we’ve seen in this "post-truth" era, facts and figures often don’t do much to change people’s minds. Anthropocene’s arguments enter instead through the senses, giving a concrete picture of what is at stake, for a powerful cumulative effect.

Unsettling and urgent, the film ends with some muted hope for the Anthropocenic future, putting forward the notion that if we can recognize our species’ dominance and its disastrous effect on the Earth, we might finally turn those characteristically human qualities of "tenacity and ingenuity" to the cause of preservation rather than destruction.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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