TIFF18: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch


The imagery of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is nothing short of mindblowing. The latest collaboration between documentarians Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier and renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky, Anthropocene charts the enormous impact humanity has had on the earth. The name comes from the proposed new geological epoch that we've entered, one driven entirely by human means instead of natural factors.

Anthropocene explores the implications of this new epoch through a variety of topics, focusing on ideas such as “extraction,” “terraforming,” and “climate change.” Devoid of much dialogue aside from the occasional figure talking to the camera or Alicia Vikander’s minimal narration, Anthropocene jumps between countries and continents, above and below the earth, to explore the seismic impact of human expansion and cultivation. One moment, we’re in the depths of a Siberian mine, the next, we’re watching the world’s largest wheel excavator rip into the earth in Germany, looking more like Howl’s Moving Castle or a dystopian monstrosity than a machine from the here-and-now. And that’s the point.

Baichwal, de Pencier, and Burtynsky utilize defamiliarization at every turn, viewing ordinary aspects of our industrial age from dispassionate, neutral vantage points that let us observe the incalculable impact we’re having on our planet. Their approach is overwhelming and startlingly visceral. At moments, it borders on pure visual abstraction, shooting lines of rock or machinery in ways that disguise the reality of the object. 

In one sequence, a camera mounted on the nose of a train races through the world’s longest subway tunnel in the mountains of Switzerland. As the camera races faster and begins to spin, the lights of the tunnel and the tracks ahead abstract into blinding lines of light, more akin to the voyage into the Stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey than a mere train journey. In another sequence, the camera roams through the crowds of a megachurch in Lagos, Nigeria that’s made to fit one million worshipers. There’s no end to the crowds in sight and the feverish singing and dance is viewed as if the observer has never before seen humans worshipping en masse.

Although Anthropocene implies that we have severely reshaped the planet, almost unquestionably for the worse, the film retains the neutral position of observer, not critic or judge. This lends the film enormous power as it bears witness to the world-shaping mechanisms we employ to support human life. Through its startling imagery and brilliant point of view, the film unveils the irreversible ways we have affected our world and to which we are all responsible. It’s a work of overwhelming beauty, but also sobering realization, one that could easily lead you to believe that the growth of humanity is the worst event in terrestrial history.

8 out of 10

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018, Canada)

Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky; written by Jennifer Baichwal.