How “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” Fails as an Environmental Documentary
You might be wondering: Jon, what are you doing? Isn’t this a two-year old documentary/art installation that came and went? What are you doing writing a blog piece about it now, when it’s not relevant anymore?
Well, dear reader, let me tell you why. I’m stuck at home in the midst of what is going to be another lockdown, working a job where it’s dark outside by the time I finish, and I need something to direct my frustration at!
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is a 2018 Canadian documentary and third collaboration between filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and photographer Edward Burtynsky. The film spans continents in its efforts to showcase the ways in which humans have influenced an ecological shift out of the Halocene into the Anthropocene; the ultimate goal of the film (and the overaching project that encompassed art installations, interactive works, and two books) is meant to be a visual piece of filmmaking, more than a statement piece.
In the artist statement for Anthropocene, one quote in particular stood out to me. It reads as follows:
“Our ambition is for the work to be revelatory, not accusatory, as we examine human influence on the Earth both on a planetary scale and in geological time. The shifting of consciousness is the beginning of change.”
This philosophy is key to the bad taste left in my mouth by this documentary; if all this is doing is “revealing” the impacts of humanity on the Earth, why the grandiose approach to cinematography? Why the subdued voiceover narration by Academy-Award-winning Actress Alicia Vikander?
What do we get out of this film that can’t be found in an aesthetically-pleasing post by an activist Instagram page?
Burtynsky’s approach to photographing the landscapes, while monumental and aesthetically-pleasing, works against the efforts of environmental documentary-filmmaking. The camera captures images of lithium mining fields from a birds-eye view, and marble excavations with the slow zoom out as though Andrei Tarkovsky himself were directing the film, and it is all so numbing. Once you notice the style, it is all you focus on. It’s all slow, sweeping vistas of landscapes, with a score intended to be haunting and important. It is so monumental in scope, it misses all detail.
This film is barely ninety-minutes, and yet it feels as if it were a four-hour epic. Is this the feeling the team behind Anthropocene wants its audience to feel — a yawn and a shrug?
Unfortunately, there’s nothing else to hold onto. As a result of the project’s goal of not accusing, the most we get with people are nameless workers who are just doing their job. There’s no namedropping of the companies who are funding these projects that are damaging the environment. There’s no reference to the political climates of the countries these activities occur in. Even the narration itself skirts around saying what it really wants to say: “Humans have impacted…”. It’s that one word, over and over. An early scene shows a Russian parade with a performance of a song featuring the lyric “we are responsible for the outcome”, over a shot of a passerby observing the performance is painfully clear in what it is trying to say.
Never mind that a majority of emissions and damage to the ecological structures of the planet can be traced back to 100 companies. No, it is “Humans”. Those pesky, nondescript humans, always waking up in the morning and just excavating marble to…make statues..? Surely the greatest impact we have on the Earth, and nothing else.
It’s unbearably vague and self-important, all without saying anything of value. A by-product of its skirting of accusation is that it inadvertently places the onus on the actions of everyday people, rather than industries and governments prioritizing profit over environmental protection. All Anthropocene succeeds in revealing is that it is an empty, vapid piece of filmmaking and exhibition that prioritizes its grandiose status over actual efforts to point the fingers in the right direction.
At the end of the film, I was frustrated. I was frustrated, because I wasted ninety-minutes of my life watching a movie that gave me as much information as someone’s story post about the latest environmental disaster to befall humanity. It’s only two years since the release of Anthropocene, and it is already woefully outdated.
It is not enough to be revelatory at this point. We know what’s happening, so what do we do next?
We do better than this.