Cinéma du Réel 2022 review: Anyox (Jessica Johnson & Ryan Ermacora)

“With its almost hypnotizing effect, this film strikes a balance between esotericism and urgency that is rarely seen and makes Anyox a breath of fresh air in documentary filmmaking.”

Anyox, British Columbia. Population: 2. A ghost town, but this wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century Anyox was a boom town, owned by the Granby Consolidated Mining Company, the center of its copper mining business. In 1935 the company, with the demand for copper dwindling and the business no longer viable, in true Nomadland fashion shut down the mine and thus effectively the town. It is the repeating story of human existence on this planet: exploit and move on. But as always, humanity left its mark. The environment around Anyox suffered immensely. Acid rain turned the hillsides bare. Enormous slag piles, a by-product of the smelting process, were left behind as black pimples dotting the ruined skin of nature. But mankind’s proclivity to destroy the world around it is not the only topic raised in Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora’s quietly impressive film, named after the town, that documents Anyox through the remnants of its past that can still be found today, some of which may never be erased.

Johnson and Ermacora combine both 35mm and 65mm cinematography with microfilm footage of archival documents and audio fragments, either historic or re-enacted, to piece together the puzzle of Anyox’s history, focusing not only on the environmental consequences of the operation but also the politics of it. Still shots of desaturated landscapes and piles of rubble intersperse a story of labour disputes, strikes, and unionization in a microcosm of the tug-and-pull of capitalism and socialism, a story that slowly emerges from newspaper articles and letters that are either shown on screen or read out loud. About mostly immigrant workers from Eastern Europe, who read socialist newspapers which are often in their native languages. About the company using its influence to stop that influx of ideas and debilitate unions. About pay cuts and strikes, which are violently beaten down, leading to many workers being expelled from Canada. Especially a lengthy letter by a Yugoslavian immigrant elucidates much of the lead-up to the strike and its aftermath.

That gives Anyox a through line which is hard to discern at first, but which leaves you even more to ponder after the film. The striking images of Anyox’s surrounding nature come into focus as victims of a human struggle that is driven by the only green that truly matters to mankind, the green of its banknotes. The serenity of the shots, not just of hills and creeks and trees but also of the mounds of slag between which the two remaining residents move in silence, have an eerie quality to them, the desolation of the latter images evoking comparisons to a lunar landscape.

One would expect that Johnson and Ermacora’s avant-garde approach would make the point hard to grasp, but au contraire: by its end, Anyox‘s story and both the reverberations and the parallels it has in our current times are strikingly lucid. Man’s mark on his surroundings, often to the detriment of said surroundings, is made forever. Anyox doesn’t set out to change that, but it is an excellent artistic reminder of our effect on the environment in a time when we, the human race, should be looking to make that effect a positive one. With its almost hypnotizing effect, this film strikes a balance between esotericism and urgency that is rarely seen and makes Anyox a breath of fresh air in documentary filmmaking.