The trio of filmmakers behind the documentaries Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013) are back with the visually stunning and sobering Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, which chronicles the impact human activity has had on the planet. An accompanying exhibition will run at the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 6.
We sat down with Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. For the full interview, stay tuned for the new weekly TVO podcast On Docs, which will launch October 25.
What does the word Anthropocene mean?
Jennifer: Anthropocene is the proposed name of our current geological epoch. There's a group of scientists and geologists called the Anthropocene Working Group that has been gathering evidence for 10 years to determine if humans change Earth systems more than all natural processes combined, and their research is showing that that is, in fact, the case. So we are in a time in the Earth's history when humans as a species — although we've only been around 10,000 of 4.5 billion years — have tipped the planet outside its natural limits.
What was it like to shoot in Norilsk, Russia — the most polluted city in the country — where they celebrate something called Metallurgy Day?
Nick: That was one of those places where you really felt you were having a rare experience, and it took a lot of work to get permission and access and visas. Even Russians need a permit to go there. It's 320 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, and it's a one-company town with 200,000 people. It was actually really hard to film, because there was always hard light even at three in the morning, and you just know in the winter no one's going outside. And yet they had this festival with the stage and the parade, and they brought all of the mining equipment out for the kids to play on. So it's a privilege for us to be able to go and try and capture that in image and sound and feel. Yes, there's an epic scale to the industrial processes that are going on there, but then there are humans, and there's humanity, and we can never forget that.
Jennifer: And all those people are employed. They're making a living doing that work. There's no black and white here — just as there's no easy answer to this dilemma we find ourselves in, of tipping the Earth outside its natural limits. Those are people who rely on that. That's why there is a Metallurgy Day, because of the fact that there is the largest coloured-metal mine and heavy-metal smelting complex in the world in Norilsk. It is the biggest producer of palladium. Palladium is used in all of our cellphones. We all partake of that mine. So we need to understand that these are complex issues that are not easily solved. You don't just shut down that smelter — that's not going to solve the problem.
Edward: Before I went, I had this vision of this dreary grey Potemkin village, Stalinist period, the people equally grey, and then we got there, and you can see by the footage that it was brightly coloured, and the people were happy.
You captured some really beautiful images of the northern white rhino, which is functionally extinct. How did it feel to film animals on the cusp of extinction?
Nick: What a heavy concept: functionally extinct. And just to wrap your brain around it is one thing, but to actually stand there … We spent several days with Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, who has subsequently died. The northern white rhino is functionally extinct now, because now there are only two left — they're both females, they're both geriatric, they won't reproduce. So they are alive, but when they go, that species is no more. And to be that close, to literally have touched those rhinos with my hand, that is a visceral experience of something that I will never forget. It transforms you.
This is the third film you’ve made together. Have you said all you need to say on the subject, or is there more to tell?
Jennifer: We didn't set out in the beginning to make a trilogy. This all happened quite organically, proceeding out of Manufactured Landscapes and the somewhat surprising effect and impact that that had around the world. We live in a world that is full of distraction: to actually stop and have sustained reflection on the topic is in itself a luxury and something that many people can't even bring themselves to do. We're trying to do that here, and I feel like it is a culmination of everything that we have done together for the past 13 years. And the fact that we're exploring it not just in the film but in the museum exhibition, in the book, in an educational program — I would never say never in terms of what the future will bring, but I feel like this is kind of a summary, a conclusion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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