When the documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and then was screened last January at the Sundance Film Festival, it attracted much attention for its incredible cinematography capturing the immense scope of what humans have wrought on the planet.
Since then the documentary has been picked up for distribution by Kino Lorber. It has gained more attention, partly due to the global visibility of Greta Thunberg, the teen Swedish activist, who announced one of the most quoted lines of the year regarding the climate crisis — “our house is on fire” — last winter at the World Economic Forum at Davos.
The Canadian documentary, directed and produced by Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky and Nicholas de Pencier, will be screened in a free, public program Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. in the City Library auditorium in downtown Salt Lake City. Presented by the Utah Film Center, the program will include a post-screening panel discussion on sustainable design, as organized by the Utah Center for Architecture, with architects David Brems, GSBS; Sarah Boll, DFCM and Kenner Kingston, Arch Nexus. The panel will be moderated by Kevin Emerson of Utah Clean Energy.
Only the last section of the documentary, which integrates footage shot in more than 20 countries on six continents, deals directly with the climate crisis. Otherwise, the film compiles for a mainstream audience visual examples of the evidence from a research project of more than a decade of activity being conducted by the Anthropocene Working Group. It is an assortment of international scientists who contend that the Holocene Epoch, which began some 12,000 years ago after the last of the Ice Age glaciers retreated, gave way to the Anthropocene Epoch in the middle of the last century.
The film’s first half is the most stunning in terms of visual breadth and depth. In Kenya, armed soldiers protect the preserves housing endangered elephants so that poachers will not kill them for their ivory tusks. The closing scene returns the viewer to Kenya, as immense mounds of elephant tusks are burned so that no one will benefit commercially from their value. The scene evokes unexpectedly Thunberg’s signature line about the climate crisis, now expanded to encompass the industrial scale of what humans have done in reengineering the planet for the sake of profit and wealth.
There is an important semantic debate that is not addressed, however. While one group of scientists argue for the acknowledgment of the Anthropocene Epoch, others believe the more precise term would be Capitalocene, reflecting the impacts of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the Information Economy on our natural world. The most substantial imagery in the film represents the constructed and engineered outcomes of human activity, rather than the appearance of human themselves, who appear more often as supporting or incidental cast members in this documentary. Certainly, the lack of political resolve to move beyond what essentially has become a stalemate about how to address the climate crisis and other environmental calamities boils down to entrenched rivalries, tensions and economic conflicts between the industrialized nations and the poorer developing economies who are seeking their own advantages from sustainable development.
There are too few instances in the film that glimpse what corrective measures could be like. One is the aforementioned efforts in Kenya to protect endangered species such as the African elephant. Another is the ingenious transformation of the old air raid shelters that Londoners escaped to during World War II into underground greenhouses for growing fresh produce. Another example adds its own natural, tragic irony. A Hong Kong artisan carver switched from elephant ivory to the material from mammoth tusks that have become available because the permafrost in the location has thawed. He explains that the mammoth tusks are better and easier to work with, as displayed in the intricately sculpted pieces of art (some of which take 10 years to complete) he and fellow craft artisans create.
Nevertheless, other visuals are unforgettable: the eerily artistic array of potash mines in Russia’s Ural Mountains or the gigantic bucket wheel excavator; the largest piece of terraforming equipment in the world, in Germany and the lithium evaporation pools in Chile’s Atacama Desert, known as the world’s driest location. Other scenes are heartbreaking, such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, affected by bleaching as ocean waters are acidifying.
The film is narrated by Alicia Viklander, a Swedish actress who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role three years ago for The Danish Girl. This latest documentary completes a trilogy by the directors and producers, with the other two films being Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013). Filmmakers also have collaborated with the scientists of the Anthropocene Working Group and other partners, including the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, to produce educational materials for Canadian schools.
For more information about this and other programs, see the Utah Film Center website.