Co-directors Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier discuss their third film collaboration, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. This is an excerpt from the ebook The Canadian Cinema Yearbook which is available for purchase here.
The central tension in Edward Burtynsky’s photographs is that they’re gorgeous, and yet they depict the human destruction of the earth’s ecosystems. You view his photos in awe at their majesty; their beauty is what makes them so terrifying. In 2006, Burtynsky started collaborating with director Jennifer Baichwal and producer-cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier to turn his photography books into feature films. Manufactured Landscapes (2006) tackled industrial landscapes and the waste they generated. Watermark (2013) explored how humans have leveraged water resources and caused environmental destruction in the process. Like Burtynsky’s photographs, the films are impressive works of art, best seen on the big screen to capture the scale of the landscapes.
Their new film, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, which premiered at TIFF earlier this month, is their most expansive and best collaboration. The film takes its title from the term proposed to denote the current geological age, in which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Taking us around the world, the film gives us a glimpse of the extent of the human impact on the natural environment — from the effects of mining and industry, to animal extinction, to climate change. A carefully curated voice-over by Alicia Vikander provides important context for the images we’re seeing (something Watermark disappointingly lacked). It piques our curiosity to learn more and gives us space to contemplate the significance of the images we’re seeing.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, I spoke with the all-Canadian filmmaking team — co-directors Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier — about their evolving collaboration, their approach to telling stories about the human impact on the environment, and what the film offers that an art exhibit or book can’t. The film’s Canadian release coincides with the opening of the exhibit of the same name, co-created by the trio, at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
7R: Anthropocene is the third film that you have done together, after Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. How has that collaboration evolved through the years?
Jennifer Baichwal: It started with Manufactured Landscapes. I remember our friend Daniel Iron, our longtime producing partner, said, “Are you interested in looking at 120 hours of video material to make a film?” So I watched all of it with our editor. All the black and white stuff in Manufactured Landscapes is from this.
Edward Burtynsky: That must have been painful!
Jennifer Baichwal: And I made the decision we could make a film, but it could not just be with this footage. That’s what started this process. It was me directing a film about Ed, where I really wanted him to be the author more than the subject. It wasn’t a traditional bio-portrait, but more a study on how to intelligently extend the meaning of the photographs into the medium of film.
In Watermark, it was more of a co-direction. Ed had already started doing that photographic essay. We came in and decided to make a film. Nick was the cinematographer and producer.
On Anthropocene, Nick is the main cinematographer; Ed did some cinematography. We are all directors of it. I’m more the lead, the person who sits in the editing room with our editor Roland Schlimme to put the puzzle together.
Our relationship has evolved and gotten much richer and more complex, especially since we are also doing this museum exhibition which is anchored by Ed’s photographs but with film installations and augmented reality, sculptures. It’s a lens-based exploration, using whatever lens works the best to convey this subject.
Edward Burtynsky: To add a little bit to that history — that 120 hours of footage [that Jennifer received for Manufactured Landscapes] it was from Jeff Powis who wanted to make a doc about my work, but he had never made a doc before. I had some conditions for him making it like, “You can’t slow me down” and a whole bunch of other things. When he put something together, I had the right to say I liked it or didn’t like it, and it felt wrong. So when it got shopped around, and Jennifer saw it, I saw her film as well, True Meaning of Pictures. I realized that there was a greater kind of intelligence and depth, as an exploration of photography as a medium through the medium of film.
The books are there, too, but so few people actually get to see the books or read the deeper context of these images in the book. I was excited to work with the calibre of filmmaking that they brought to the table to extend the context of the images that I was making. People could understand that these were coming out of worlds that are real, with real people…
Jennifer Baichwal: And we’re all connected to them. We’re all part of them.
Edward Burtynsky: The images are kind of disembodied. You can engage in them, but you can’t get the deeper context just by the images.
7R: What did you find that you could get from the film Anthropocene that you can’t get from the photographs? How do you see it as an extension of your work, and how do you see it as an opportunity to show something additional that won’t necessarily appear in the exhibit?
Nicholas de Pencier: One of the best compliments we got on Manufactured Landscapes was that it replicated the experience of seeing a work of art. Some films are very discursive, have a lot of information and a lot of exposition; when you watch them, it’s a very passive experience. You are just bombarded with facts and information. Sometimes, that can be good, like a power punch of learning. But it’s more intellectual learning.
Here, there is a lot of just witnessing and a different relationship with time than in a lot of the films where you have a dialogue. You’re allowed to come back with your own thoughts because there’s time to do it. I think that’s what can happen in a transformative way in an art context. I think the films stand out because of that. There’s not a lot of that kind of filmmaking, certainly around environmental issues or social issues, that lets you have that experience. It’s unique and hopefully powerful.'There's not a lot of that kind of filmmaking, certainly around environmental issues or social issues, that lets you have the time to think your own thoughts.' - Nicholas de PencierClick To Tweet
7R: One obvious thing that you can get from the film Anthropocene and not from the photographs is sound. I really liked the way you could hear these environments and the noise of the destruction of these environments. How do you think about sound and the music, that may or may not start diegetically, but a lot of it seems to be things that you captured?
Jennifer Baichwal: Even from the beginning in Manufactured Landscapes, sound is crucial. Also, expressing scale and time — how you do duration. The time-based medium can tease out meaning in a different way.
In almost all cases, our sound emerges from the soundscape of where we are. We’re very careful to record a lot of location sounds. Those industrial environments are sometimes overwhelming, and then you might notice there is some melody or rhythm that is emerging that then takes over and then subsumes back into it.
It’s really important for me, in documentary, that music never leads you emotionally. I don’t believe in that. I feel it has to come from the reality of the context. But it can certainly add another layer.
In this film, all of our composers — with the exception of Mozart and the final song which is by our friends Rheostatics — are women. Female composers make up only 4% of composers in traditional Hollywood films. 4%! It’s just pathetic. They’re so great, and it was hard to find them. It wasn’t like there is a database you can go to. We really had to search. I’m really proud of and pleased with the sound design and the composition.'Those industrial environments are sometimes overwhelming, and then you might notice there is some melody or rhythm that is emerging that then takes over and then subsumes back into it.' - Jennifer BaichwalClick To Tweet
To read the rest of the article, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.