TIFF review: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky and Nicholas de Pencier's documentary exploration of our new geological epoch gets trippy


ANTHROPOCENE: THE HUMAN EPOCH SPEC D: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, Edward Burtynsky. Canada. 87 min. Sep 6, 6:30 pm Winter Garden Sep 12, 12:30 pm TBLB 1. See listing. Rating: NNN


The third collaboration between director Baichwal, photographer Burtynysky and DP de Pencier (now billed as co-director) continues the trio’s large-scale visual exploration of environmental change and degradation, but in the context of scientific research declaring that we have moved into a new geological epoch defined by human activity.

In the 12 years since Manufactured Landscapes, visual environmental docs have become a venerable sub-genre, partially because more didactic approaches to climate change tend to repel audiences. The filmmakers don’t shake up their contemplative approach – globe-trotting vignettes, minimal narration (by actor Alicia Vikander), awe-inspiring aerial views – but they do manage to one-up themselves.

A shot slowly revealing the scale of a marble quarry in Italy is awesome a tunnel opening ceremony in Switzerland looks like something out of a Matthew Barney film and scenes in a Russian potash mine are so tripped out they wouldn’t be out of place in a Midnight Madness movie – the same goes for a sequence showing coral bleaching in Indonesia.

The eye for unexpected patterns and details help make jargony terms like terraforming and technofossils – and their existential implications – graspable. (The film is also part of simultaneous art exhibitions opening in Toronto and Ottawa later this month.)

Anthropocene begins and ends with anti-poaching activists in Kenya, suggesting a combination of grassroots and government action is needed if humanity is going to save the earth from destruction. While the film’s urgency comes across, its beautiful and bizarre moments also push the doc toward abstraction. As such, it’s still hard to shake the notion that Burtynsky and his documentary collaborators are aestheticizing environmental tragedy.

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