The cult film Koyaanisqatsi, named after the Hopi idea of “life lived out of balance,” contains no dialogue, but rather scenes all over the world — of cities, nature, the tiniest industrially produced products, and the vastness of canyons. It’s experienced more as a guided meditation than a linear story. I thought of it when watching the new documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. It follows the research of the Anthropocene Working Group, whose members believe that the Holocene geological epoch concluded around the middle of the 20th century. In its place is the Anthropocene, characterized by the way that humans shape Earth’s landscapes.
For the first hour, directors Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky’s beautiful photography confronts the audience with both the scale of the planet and humanity’s destructive impact on it. There are shots of marble mines in Italy and Lithium mines in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Other than a few explanatory notes from workers and those who live in these places, there is scant narration, with voiceover piping in only to give measured recitations of facts about the different locations — for example, the percentage of the world’s land that is used for agricultural and industrial purposes. This narrative restraint can make the film easier to stomach than similar documentaries, like An Inconvenient Truth or Our Planet. In letting people digest its stark imagery, Anthropocene remains accessible.
Many people can point to when they first recognized and internalized their complicity in climate change (my own moment came in a grad school class). Anthropocene’s non-didactic approach makes space for the viewer’s own thoughts, letting them meditate on their place in the planet it’s presenting. The final third shifts to more explicit discussion around issues of extinction in the Anthropocene, but the hard work of watching the film happens before then. However small an individual may be in this system, the film allows them to recognize their personal stake in it.
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is now playing in theaters around the country.