“How are we part of nature, and we act like we’re not?”
An interview with Jennifer Baichwal, co-director of “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch”
Since her stunning 2006 documentary “Manufactured Landscapes,” Jennifer Baichwal has emerged as one of the cinema’s most foremost poets of ecological devastation. Made in collaboration with Canadian photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky, famous for his large-scale photographs of industrial landscapes, Baichwal’s recent films show the startling visual evidence of humankind’s impact on the planet. Her latest film, co-directed with Burtynsky and her partner Nicholas de Pencier, “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” provides another visceral chronicle of human-made planetary change and offers staggering proofs to the scientific argument that we’ve moved from Holocene geologic epoch to one known as the Anthropocene, defined by the current global changes caused by human activity. Baichwal discusses her fascination with man and the earth, scale and detail, and the activism through aesthetically compelling imagery.
Much of your work concerns humanity’s out-of-balance relationship with nature. Where do you think this comes from?
I grew up in the west coast, with the mountains and the ocean of the Pacific Rainforest, so nature was a huge part of my life and my relationship with light. I still miss that misty light—it’s brighter than the sun in some ways. That was my childhood. Then I did my graduate degree in philosophy and religious studies, and I was always thinking of those metaphysical relationships, and looking at things from a more holistic perspective. That’s how I started to think about how we interact with nature, how are we part of nature, and we act like we’re not, and what’s the relationship of body, intellect, and earth? Those kinds of things, and I’m still preoccupied with those questions. I would also suggest that it’s more of an ethical perspective, and looking at the world from an ethical perspective, which informs those relationships. And when I first saw Ed’s photographs, I was really drawn to his kind of opaque way of drawing out these relationships.
Burtynsky is listed as a co-director on some of your films. How do you work together?
First of all, I loathe the singular author kind of grandiose mentality that is often attached to artists, authorship, and male directors—it’s this a kind of ownership of creativity. I like this idea of the director as the immune system of a film, letting those things in that make it stronger, and keeping out anything that will made it weaker. Ed is not a traditional director. He doesn’t have experience making docs, but his vision is so shot through with everything that we do together. I felt like this was a way of acknowledging that. He’s always taking photographs at the same time as we’re filming, and he does have this uncanny ability to convey the wide view. In his photography, you can look into the potential narratives in these huge hi-res photographs, but we also want to be able to spend the time with the women in the factory, for instance, and stay on their faces for a period of time, having existential time with people or specifics, so you can feel that you know them. For “Anthropocene,” we were in so many spaces and spent 4 years filming, and sometimes it was just Ed alone, and we were giving advice remotely. Or vice versa, where we were somewhere where Ed was not, so it’s impossible to detangle the levels and all the versions of collaboration that happen.
Scale is so important to his photographs, and I think the same is true of your films, and “Anthropocene,” in particular, it really asks to be seen on a big screen.
The film is now playing on Air Canada, and it pains me every time I see someone watching it on the back of an airplane seat. But yes, the relationship between scale and detail is the most important thing in all three films, formally. it is always about balancing those two things. Without an understanding of scale, you can get lost in detail, but without the detail, you don’t understand the meaning of the scale. The whole scene in Germany, for example, where you see the biggest machine on the planet, it’s brought into focus by the engineer who is driving it and the carrot farmer who is displaced by it. Just to have it alone isn’t meaningful. In “Anthropocene,” there’s a lot of aerial and god’s eye views, and Ed has done a lot of aerial work. Because you can’t understand watersheds if you’re not up high. But there’s a danger of floating away and not engaging. This goes back to the ethical thing: you have to be on the ground to understand a place. So in “Anthropocene,” yes, we want the big view of Lagos, but yes, we want to be on the street, on the back of a motorcycle or following people in the market.
Another dialectic in your work and Burtynsky’s is this relationship between the horror of what you’re showing, but the beauty of the images. How do you reconcile the two?
It all started with “Manufactured Landscapes.” There’s two elements of that: the experiential non-didactic quality of it. These are not polemics; this is not Michael Moore. It’s just bringing you to places that you’re connected to, but that you wouldn’t normally see. I would also argue that beauty is not the right term. To me, it’s aesthetically compelling. You are drawn into it. It’s very hard to have sustained attention in the developed world, so I want to draw people in, and through something aesthetically compelling, it allows them to linger in that space. That’s what I think deepens the experiential experience of understanding. If it was ugly and horrific, you’re not going to be drawn into what you’re looking at. But it’s true we get nailed for that all the time. Critics say: “You make ugly things beautiful” or “You’re not being hard enough.” I fully back the screaming arguments, but ours is another way of understanding, and allowing people to experience it in a different way. That was abundantly clear from “Manufactured Landscapes,” and that’s why we’ve continued to do it.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
Yes. I’m preoccupied by these things all the time. Do I consider myself an environmentalist? Yes. But it’s like a baton. For “Anthropocene,” we were trying to express the research of these scientists, who work in graphs and percentages, and you can’t feel it. But art has the capacity to move us emotionally and intellectually and viscerally. For me, exploring these vital questions in the arena of art is a very rich place to explore then. The scientists passed us the baton and we tried to find a different way to be more accessible and that moves on to viewers who might consider purchasing non-reusable plastic water bottles, and activists, who would use this as a tool for what they do. And we have all these groups that we partner with to amplify the work. So I’m not doing it with a protest sign, but I’m trying to making this work and disseminate it as much as possible.