If you haven’t used the term “Anthropocene” much, you can be forgiven. The term is of fairly recent origin, and it’s used to describe what some believe is a new geologic age: one in which human activity has changed the earth and its atmosphere. It’s a big idea, one that catches a lot of other ideas in its net—climate change being the most powerful. The idea of the Anthropocene lends more weight to what we already understand are the consequences of human activity. Our impact is not just local, national, or global, but temporal. We’ve literally changed the scale of geologic time.
The awesome consequences of human agency on the land are tough to convey without sounding ponderous, but for the filmmakers Alex Chohlas-Wood and Ben Mendelsohn, who are interested in things like infrastructure, technology, and the human/nature interface, much of the story can be told by the landscapes where these earth-changing processes take place. Which is how they came to make a documentary nominally about dredging, dredge landscapes, and sediment flow: The Fluid and the Solid.
Coastal engineering, earth moving, and the control and disruption of sediment flow have caused catastrophic land loss in places like Louisiana, where the impact of Hurricane Katrina was compounded by the chronic erosion of estuaries and wetlands. The film introduces the problem of what the Dredge Research Collaborative, a group of landscape architects and researchers, calls the “dredge cycle,” and it posits this: Essentially, we have to continue to dredge our rivers, harbors, and estuaries to mitigate the problems we’ve already caused by dredging. In The Fluid and the Solid, the filmmakers want to tell a story about these Anthropocene landscapes that is both intellectually and visually compelling without being terribly abstract.
As the film, scheduled for release later this year, points out, dredging is not just about controlling the flow of water and sediment: It’s about maintaining the flow of consumer goods and commodities. Dredging is integral to the physical maintence of our urban harbors and commercial ports on which we depend economically. The complex interrelation of human, ecological, and industrial systems found in dredge landscapes is what brings the abstract idea of the Anthropocene to the ground.
“The interesting thing about dredging for me was that these were actual tangible landscapes,” says Chohlas-Wood—that they could show the processes of human interventions and not just the consequences. Mendelsohn and Chohlas-Wood selected the places they show through a process of research, site visits, and talking with other dredge aficionados. The sites they did choose—the Mississippi River Basin, Jamaica Bay in Queens—are complex, dynamic systems with a long history of human intervention. “Ultimately we’re trying to connect the large story of the Anthropocene, and the future of the planet, with these concrete places,” Mendelsohn says.
It may sound like a dose of castor oil, but the film is full of striking imagery and compositions. It employs tactics from both narrative documentary and experimental landscape film, balancing the stillness of long wide shots with the kinetic energy and sound of massive water and earth movement. These are the kinds of fetishistic images of landscape and power that quicken the pulse of many a landscape architect. Mendelsohn acknowledges that they were influenced by filmmakers such as James Benning (13 Lakes, Ten Skies) and Peter Hutton (At Sea, Three Landscapes), whose work “entails a close and sustained attention, a commitment about trying to get a sense of place,” he says. “We wanted to give viewers the opportunity to do the same.”
One of the things the film does well is to move beyond identifying the good and the bad to confront what should come next. The example of Jamaica Bay brings home, with a light touch, that these systems have been managed since the Europeans arrived, and there’s no going back now. We will have to continue to manage them. The filmmakers understand that they, and we, are complicit in the processes that shape these landscapes. “I participate in this economy that requires these goods to be shipped from China, which is why this harbor needs to be dredged,” Chohlas-Wood says. “Understanding the intricacies and dilemmas is really where you can tell an interesting story.”
More on The Fluid and the Solid can be found at www.alexplusben.com.