Interview: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky on Going to the Ends of the Earth for “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch”

“It’s not an ordinary city…but you become a romantic,” a worker at a smelting plant in Norilsk, Russia says in “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” on a break from processing the nickel, copper and palladium that keeps the region in decent financial health even if it threatens the physical health of its citizens, not to mention the rest of the world, with the copious pollution it puts into the air. There’s a certain beauty in what she says, as you can clearly see she takes pride in having a steady job and it extends to the rest of the community, which celebrates the presence of the factory with music and families taking pictures in front of the giant Caterpillar dump trucks that haul off the metals and minerals. In a film that’s full of the jaw-dropping imagery one has come to expect from the trio of Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky following their previous collaborations “Manufactured Landscapes” and “Watermark,” which have shown the ways in humans have shaped nature in their use – and often abuse – of its resources with an eagle eye view, this most mundane, ground-level scene may be its most searing when you realize how readily people become inured to living in such unsafe conditions, willing to give up their long-term survival prospects for mild short-term discomfort.

Taking inspiration from a scientific study proposing that a new geological epoch of time should be recognized, given that humans’ impact on the evolution of the earth has outstripped the development the planet would naturally have on its own, “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” visits places around the world where the most radical change has taken place, whether it’s a forest in the filmmakers’ native British Columbia where industrial logging is contributing to deforestation, China where extraordinary concrete sea walls are being put up to literally stem the rising tide that has resulted from climate change, or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia where the coral that once had such strong color now has now withered into beige. A camera allows audiences entry into places they’ve never seen before, or at least certainly in a way they’ve never seen before given the keen eye of these filmmakers, but while capturing the awesome power of seeing this geological shift happen right before your eyes, Baichwal, de Pencier and Burtynsky also illuminate the staggering capacity of man to shape the environment, building machines that have dramatically imbalanced any give-and-take relationship that we may have had with the earth and piling high landfills that reach to the heavens.

Akin to the feeling of a lobster settling into a pot of boiling water, thinking it’s a warm bath, “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” ultimately is chronicling an extinction in progress through its dazzling imagery, though its release now is an invaluable contribution to the effort to slow it down and as the trio of filmmakers were preparing for a trip to California where there will be special screenings of the film this evening in Los Angeles at the Aero Theater and on September 29th at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, they spoke about how they got their arms around such an ambitious endeavor that’s been in the works for five years and never losing sight of the human element even as the film chronicles issues of our making that have become bigger than us.

How did this come about?

Edward Burtynsky: It started because we were together in the distribution rollout of “Watermark,” the last film that we had collaborated on, and this idea of what to do next was being talked about. At some point, the idea of the Anthropocene as a proposed unit in the geological time scale and the research of those scientists just seemed like a really interesting framework and structure to look at the whole human project in a way that we’re not used to looking at it. We seem to get these little tidbits of crisis information — plastic straws are a problem this week and glacier melting is a problem the next week, but these guys offered a unique perspective of the whole planet and the really big picture in deep time – we don’t [typically] get that all at once. So it was a really big project, probably the biggest project we’d ever worked on, but we looked at each other, did a bunch of research and dived in.

With a project like this where you’re criss-crossing the globe, does the bigger picture framework make it rigid in terms of where you go or do you have the leeway to follow a story and go to one place based on where you’ve just been?

Edward Burtynsky: In many ways, what was unique about this film is from the very get-go, we created a war room in an office where we had a magnetic board and we had all the different categories that the Anthropocene Working Group were using to define the Anthropocene. We had reference pictures and clip outs of magazines or what we could find online and stuff from my past work that seemed to make sense – and then we had this debate as to, “Okay, how do we find the locations that hit certain touchpoints?” Our criteria included [asking] is it visually engaging because we want to make a film and I want to make stills that people will visually be drawn to, and also that [where we’d go] had scale to it. [For instance, we’d look for] this is a large example of mining for colored metals or this is a huge example of mining for fertilizers underground, like potash, things that the Anthropocene Working Group were looking at.

For instance, anthroturbation, which is not a household word, basically means all tunnels that we as humans create are capable of going into the deep future. And [the Anthropocene Working Group is] looking at everything as if they were a geologist 200 years from now, hitting a certain layer of rock and saying, “Ahh, here is the evidence of humans. This is the Anthropocene epoch.” So a tunnel, of course, goes into deep time and deep space because they move at geological time into the future, so that’s how we found tunnels that were interesting to look at.

Jennifer Baichwal: And going into these places – and this is true in all of our films, we always have a credit saying this film was made without a traditional script. I very strongly believe in terms of filmmaking philosophy that especially when you’re traveling all over the world and you’re engaging with reality, you can’t go in with a preconceived notion of what you think is going to happen or what you want to happen because there’s an arrogance in that. The whole point of engaging with these context is to engage with humility – to allow the truth of that place and that context to be revealed to you by being there with openness, so we really deliberately do not go into places with a shotlist, for example, like “We need this, this and this and we can get out of here with a couple of soundbites from somebody.” It’s very open-ended when we’re shooting and that’s the philosophy of filmmaking that we’ve basically followed for 25 years. That, to us, is how you engage with a form that is meant to convey some kind of truth.

Edward Burtynsky: Actually, if you look at Norilisk, one of the locations we went, it’s been on my list of places to go [for a long time]. It often shows up number one or two on the most polluted cities in the world, but I was interested in it because it has the largest color metal mine in the world, particularly nickel and palladium. When we got there, I was [imagining] this as a grey, dour north of the Arctic Circle Potemkin kind of village built by the gulag — the political prisoners— sent up there, but when we arrived, it’s a bright and sunny and they’re having Metallurgy Day, so they’re having a parade and people are having fun on all the machinery. That becomes part of the film because the preconceived notion was we’re at the end of the world, this is going to be something that’s a dark, grey scene in the film, and it ends up being a happy, bright part of the movie and that’s something we never expected that in a million years.

There were other unexpected things when we were trying to do something about extinction events and we were looking at the burning of the tusks and we thought, “Well, we should show what happens to those tusks – the carving.” Of course, nobody in China or Vietnam or anywhere [else] would allow us into an actual illegal elephant tusk carving operation, but we could get into a woolley mammoth tusk park and if you get into the layers of that — the mammoth went extinct at the hands of humans 10 to 12,000 years ago, but then the fact that these tusks are becoming available are happening from the receding glaciers and all of these tusks are popping up because they’ve been trapped in the ice from previous millennia, that tells another subtext we could never expect and by pursuing the storyline, we end up being able to bring these ideas together. They’re not always obvious, but it adds another layer to the film as well.

Over the course of these films, have the changes in technology allowed you to be more ambitious in what you cover?

Edward Burtynsky: The technology is, for us, the means to the end and the end philosophically is not to be doing reportage or just bringing back information, but to really be trying to bring back anything that is going to contribute to a viewer’s experience of really feeling like they were there, whether that’s really impactive visuals or the aural environment, and really witnessing this place in all of its grandeur or horror or beauty and having a more emotional response and learning rather than an informational one. So we’re schlepping the biggest cameras that we can – the same camera chips that are in the Hollywood films, even though it’s not easy in these huge mines to have all this huge infrastructure. The drones certainly have allowed us a freedom to have perspectives on things that do justice to their scale, and helicopters, when the budget allows and the logistics allow. These are all things that we’re deploying to convey the scale and the magnitude as accurately and profoundly as we can.

Jennifer Baichwal: Although it’s still old fashioned filmmaking a lot of the time. It’s still me and Nick on the ground with the camera, talking to people, walking around. In conveying scale, we have to be careful we don’t just float away into the big picture, and I think the details that offset the big picture in this film and indeed in the trilogy of films that we’ve done with Ed are very important in understanding the big picture. I don’t think the coal mine in Germany with the biggest machine on the planet, the bagger, really makes sense unless you’re talking to Nikol, the carrot farmer who is about to be displaced and is living in a ghost town because everybody else has already left.

Nicholas de Pencier: These aren’t abstract diagrammatic places. You could present them as such, but you miss an important layer of the truth, which is that they’re everyday people living and working in these places, so when you’re in these places and you’re trying to engage with people for those human moments, humanizing what this place is.

How do you determine what the presence of humans is in a film like this when you want it to be purely experiential, but at the same time have something like that to hold onto?

Jennifer Baichwal: Not just humans, but other species. The elephants, for instance, or the last male Northern White Rhino, the species that we filmed at the London Zoo who are either extinct in the wild or critically endangered, all of those become characters too. Coral, trees – those individual species are all also ways of conveying the story and without understanding them, I think we don’t really get a sense of what the big picture is. It all happens in the edit room through the juxtaposition of when to go to detail and when to pull away, so [when] you don’t know what you’re looking at really, you’re [momentarily] disoriented by that, but when you pull back and you witness the big scene before going back into the moment that then crystallizes the moment of that scene.

Were any of those connections between the micro and macro only evident once you got back to the edit?

Nicholas de Pencier: The war room Ed was talking about, that was months and months and months, trying to make sure there was enough layers of resonance and interest in these locations and also frankly, just gaining the access to difficult ones. Russia certainly was hard to get into and a huge lignite coal mine in Germany doesn’t have much to gain from letting in a camera crew. So it takes time to persuade people. But when we’re on the ground, we don’t have a preconceived idea of what we want to convey there. We want to remain open to the most profound reality that we’re experiencing in that moment, so what that means is the film does get written in the edit room and all of that footage has to come together in some kind of coherence. There’s very little narration, so it really is the associations, the juxtapositions, the contrasts in the editing that hopefully gives it a coherent story.

What’s it like getting this film out into the world?

Jennifer Baichwal: Well, we’re here during Climate Week and the U.N. General Assembly and it really feels like this is the right moment. It’s a confluence of energy and people who are thinking about this. We have two elections coming up here [in the U.S.] and in Canada, and I feel like this is a really interesting moment for this film to be part of a larger conversation that seems to be reaching a saturation point in terms of awareness. I’m very heartened to see how many people are talking about climate change being their number one issue in the election. That’s never happened before. And I think if our part as artists is to open up the understanding that can lead to transformation and changes in behavior, then maybe that is worth all the energy consumed [of ours] to make this project — even though we carbon offset the project. [laughs] That is my great hope.

“Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” will have special screenings in Los Angeles at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica on September 27th with a conversation with the filmmakers moderated by Edward Norton, and the Castro Theater in San Francisco on September 29th with a conversation with the filmmakers moderated by Stewart Brand.

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