If teen global warming activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate, scolding speeches about the precarious state of our planet haven’t totally pushed your panic button yet, there’s a good chance “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” will. Jennifer Baichwal’s stunning but sobering documentary captures humanity’s impact on the globe with images that cannot be denied.
Accompanied by Alicia Vikander’s deliberate narration, the film focuses on the conclusions of the international Anthropocene Working Group, scientists who’ve carefully studied our changing planet and determined that people have altered Earth to such an extent that we’ve entered a post-Holocene geologic epoch. What that means for the planet is, in a word, bad. But there may still be time to mend our ways. (Maybe.)
Baichwal — along with co-directors Edward Burtynsky and Nicholas de Pencier — has captured footage that will both take your breath away and leave you shaking your head at humanity’s monumental hubris. The ways we’ve asserted our will on nature are simultaneously ingenious and heartbreaking: Yes, building massive seawalls to hold back the inevitable rise of the ocean is a clever feat of engineering, but why must it come to that? And scenes of stacks of elephant tusks in flames and massive machines plowing through whatever is in their path will make you wonder whether Thanos wasn’t right after all.
There is human-made beauty in “Anthropocene,” but so much of it seems to come at such a staggering cost that it’s hard not to look at it resentfully. That said, there is hope here, too — it’s clear that our teeming masses include smart people who can make a difference. But there’s no arguing that the time is NOW to prove that we really do care about protecting this place we call home. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand: For the past 12,000 years, geologists agree that we have been living in the Holocene epoch, one characterized by a warm period that followed the last glacial retreat. Many are now proposing that the Holocene has given way to the Anthropocene epoch, marked by the significant impact human beings have had on the planet’s geology and ecosystems. Directors Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky’s urgent documentary, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, gives us the lay of the land—quite literally, as they survey the emptying of the earth’s natural resources of everything from ivory to copper, showing audiences how our big machines and big wants are reshaping what has taken eons to create. A film this unrelenting is very difficult to watch—even a more hopeful note, of an artist who carves images on mammoth, instead of elephant, tusks, is a reminder that elephants are certainly due to share their ancestors’ fate. The directors don’t make the Anthropocene palatable, but that is not their job. Theirs is but to bear witness to what is now and let us decide for ourselves whether we should be proud, horrified, or simply resigned. I was reminded of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Easter, 1916” as I watched the strangely mesmerizing ruins from all corners of the world in which environmental terraforming is occurring: “Now and in time to be / Wherever green is worn / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”
Leslie Combemale Art meets environmental activism in Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky’s documentary, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. The film offers a grim look at many ways in which our planet is being altered at the hands of humans but it does so in a lyrical, visually stunning way. Scenes unfold like visual meditations, lulling viewers into comfort, only to turn to horror when Alicia Vikander, our narrator, clarifies what we are seeing. Entire forests being decimated, animals being driven to extinction, reefs dying before our eyes, and mountains being stripped can look surprisingly beautiful before we are given context. Our planet is being reengineered by humanity too fast for nature to keep up. The film is warning to all who love the natural world, and can’t help but lead to audiences to ask what part they can play in changing our current course.
Susan Wloszczyna: Sometimes, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch feels like a loftier, artier and much more sobering Transformers sequel, what with its fixation on the monstrously huge machines that chomp into the planet and unsettle our ailing ecosystem for the sake of commerce. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH. The latest from Canadian documentarian Jennifer Baichwal is an epic cinematic meditation focusing on the human impact on Earth’s evolution. Through image and narration, it presents the research of the Anthropocene Working Group, an international body of scientists who track Earth’s geological evolution. After a decade of intensive study of the layers of Earth’s surface, this exacting group of official timekeepers argues that our planet has moved into a new epoch, the titular Anthropocene, in which rapid changes to Earth’s geology are being caused primarily by human behavior. The forecast is not good. But this documentary is particularly excellent. In fact, it’s essential viewing. If our species survives the human epoch, our descendants may well look upon this film as we and our forebears consider the Bible as of record for ancient historic events that shaped our knowledge of our cultural and political roots as well as our understanding of our spirituality.
MaryAnn Johanson I’d call this movie a meditation, but that implies that there is anything relaxing or rejuvenating in it. What we see here is monumental, often monstrous, in all senses of the words: the scale upon which we humans are altering our planet is astonishing. Even if none of the depictions of the tremendous impact we have on our planet are news to you, seeing them laid out so bare here is sobering. Occasionally there is an odd beauty to what we see. Sometimes it looks like science fiction. Can we fix what we’ve broken? I’d like to share in the sliver of hope that Baichwal finds…
Loren King Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky filmed in a dozens countries to create this visually captivating document about man-made destruction of the environment for profit or in the name of “progress.” From poaching elephants for their ivory tusks in Africa, in a sickening scene where thousands of tusks poached from 10,000 elephants are stacked high like firewood, to massive excavators like horror-movie monsters ripping marble from a quarry in Italy to a plastics wasteland of a Nairobi, Kenya landfill, each segment is delivered with sober reporting and stunning images. Narrated by Alicia Vikander, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch allows us to bear witness to destruction and desecration in every corner of the planet, not by natural forces but due to human greed, ignorance and apathy.
Nell Minow: Director Jennifer Baichwai lets the pictures tell the story in this devastating look (in the most literal sense of the word) at the possibly fatal impact humans have had on our world. In an effort to create comfort and prosperity for ourselves, we have carelessly stripped the earth of resources that cannot be replenished, without considering the consequences or the severed connections. Quiet narration from the impeccably elegant but sympathetic Alicia Vikander provides the perfect accompaniment; never shrill or angry, just stating the facts.
Sheila Roberts Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is an epic cinematic journey that’s equal parts mesmerizing, disturbing and timely. While our success as a species has tipped the planet’s systems outside their natural limits, the filmmakers express optimism that our tenacity and ingenuity that helped us thrive can also lead to innovative solutions that will pull these systems back to a safe place for all life on earth. Read full review.
Nikki Baughan: Visually stunning and narratively stark, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is the latest in a growing number of environmental documentaries to explore our relationship with the natural world in often damning detail. The focus here is not on climate, but on landscape. Travelling the globe, the film explores how humans are changing the nature of the Earth, pushing us into a new geological epoch termed the ‘Anthropocene’. That’s been done by such things as gigantic smelting plants in Siberia, which belch their pollutants into water and air, and the marble mines in Italy, which take great gouges out of the earth. Deploying some truly stunning and evocative cinematography, which ranges from satellite observations of carefully cultivated fields to prowling through the ivory towers of Kenya – the poached tusks of 10,000 elephants, waiting to be destroyed – directors Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal (who also wrote the heartfelt narration delivered with poise by Alicia Vikander) presenting a beautiful, balanced and often heart-wrenching portrait of how mankind is changing the very geological fabric of our planet. It’s a powerful message, and essential viewing.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Anthropocene is a visually stunning and urgently important documentary about how humans are changing the earth in seemingly irrevocable ways. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, the doc (narrated by Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander) visits more than 20 countries to discuss the various ways we humans and our industries are responsible for mass extinction, climate change, and the general ruination of the earth. But what’s remarkable is that documentary isn’t just doom and gloom, it’s a call to action about how humans can also change course and alter the paradigm. We can listen to the scientists and activists and do better, but not if we ignore what’s already happening and what it means for our collective future.
Cate Marquis While mass extinction and climate change are part of the discussion, they come up late in the documentary and are not the major focus. It is instead, the far-reaching impact humans have had on the whole planet, both physically and on other forms of life here. This is a fascinating, thoughtful documentary film, filled with stunning photography, that makes a powerful point of which we should all be aware. Read full review.
Title: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
Directors: Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier
Release Date: September 25, 2019
Running Time: 87 minutes
Screenwriter: Jennifer Baichwal (documentary)
Distribution Company: Kino Lorber
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin