“The rain poured down on us so hard that it actually hurt; each time the thunder exploded, you could feel the noise vibrating inside your body. Immediately after that, the lighting would come, dancing around us like spears. It was as if weapons had materialized out of thin air: a sudden flash that turned everything a bright, ghostly white.… In our panic we tried to run away from it. But the storm was too big.”
Sounds like an excerpt from the recently released National Climate Assessment? And it could be. The epigraph above shares a lot with the White House’s new climate change report: descriptions of growing weaponized weather patterns and a sense of coming environmental apocalypse. But the paragraph is actually from a story by Paul Auster, recounted in Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal’s 2009 film Act of God.
For the last several years, since her stunning 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal has emerged as one of the cinema’s most foremost poets of ecological devastation, perhaps more closely attuned to the warnings of climatologists and other scientific researchers than any other filmmaker. Watching Baichwal’s films alongside a read-through of the National Climate Assessment is to visualize the report’s worst-case scenarios in the present tense: From intensifying storms, droughts and flooding to human-kind’s role in trying to shape and mitigate its risks, Baichwal has it covered.
Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal’s first collaboration with photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky, famous for his large-scale photographs of industrial landscapes, exposes the human side of the problem. If there was any doubt that mankind has made undo demands on the earth—that the vast project of modern civilization had a role in climate change—Landscapes provides startling visual evidence.
From immense Chinese landfills that evoke abstract expressionist paintings to endless Bangladeshi shipyards that resemble Dali-esque wastelands, Landscapes’ imagery is both gorgeous and haunting, full of both awe and apocalypse. The documentary’s stunning eight-minute opening sequence travels through a seemingly endless Asian factory, passing row after row of industrious workers. At once impressive and frightening, the slow tracking shot establishes both the film’s lyricism and its maddening theme: humans’ pursuit of industrial production at any cost.
While Baichwal’s follow-up to Manufactured Landscapes, Act of God, places less explicit blame on humankind—maybe it’s just the fault of a retributive deity or simply the whims of chance?—but the film nevertheless puts people at odds with a wrathful nature. Crossing the globe from the U.S. to France to Cuba to Mexico, Baichwal’s camera captures several stories of people struck by lightning.
The premise almost sounds funny, except when you begin to hear folks recount their harrowing stories. An American man speaks about the “all body vomit” and “black fluid” flowing from his friend’s mouth after a strike; a Mexican woman, recounting her encounter, speaks with panic (“we started to pray and scream for help”) and sadness (both her daughter and niece “no longer had life”).
Like Manufactured Landscapes, Act of God approaches its subject with an elegant and meditative style. It’s both beautiful and terrifying. In fact, it’s more like a horror film—displaying the fear and awe on people’s faces along with massive billowing storms, with jagged light streaks shooting across the sky that can, in less than a second, strike the ground and leave “a man like a piece of coal,” as one witness describes it.
Another more abstract look at man’s relationship with nature, Baichwal’s Payback (2012), based on Margaret Atwood’s book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, interweaves several disparate notions of payback. Similarly sophisticated as Baichwal’s previous films, both visually and intellectually, the documentary returns to the theme of humankind’s impact on the planet, most notably in its sections covering the BP oil spill and the “ecological debt” human beings owe to the earth.
Payback shows images of oil engulfing the ocean; workers washing oil-soaked pelicans; beaches covered with dead fishes; chemical dispersant poisoning the ocean and its coastal habitats. Contextualized by Baichwal and Atwood, the oil spill isn’t just shown as an environmental disaster, but a gross miscarriage of justice that deserves not just economic recompense, but greater ecological reparations. “Humans have become a rogue species,” says William Rees, a University of British Columbia economist who first coined the term “ecological footprint.” “All rich countries are in a state of ecological deficit. They are overshooting their own domestic carrying capacity,” he explains, “and there’s no way around this except to back off.”
Watermark (2013), Baichwal’s most recent film, which was co-directed by Edward Burtynsky, continues the filmmaker’s central man vs. nature theme. Here, Baichwal and Burtynsky focus explicitly on the way in which people have shaped and effected the world’s water supplies, from enormous structured “waterfront” communities to China’s massive dam projects to the Colorado River Basin, which was once abundant with fish, and now lies cracked and parched, after every ounce of water has now been diverted and allocated for consumption.
Taken separately, Baichwal’s movies each present an existential view of human lives out of balance with their natural surroundings. As a body of work, they present an unremitting and powerful account of ecological devastation that is as strangely sublime as it is scary, and perhaps a more convincing argument than all of the data presented in the National Climate Assessment.
The report’s numbers are certainly alarming— over the last century average increases in temperatures from just under two degrees and “heavy rain events” in the Northeast up seventy-one percent—but Baichwal’s images are more memorable, whether the purplish churning thunderstorm clouds seen gathering overhead in Act of God or the sunbaked American wasteland stretching as far as the eye can see in Watermark. Such striking and harrowing pictures force viewers to more directly grapple with the fate of the planet—and ourselves. As Burtynsky says in Manufactured Landscapes, “If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”