Jennifer Baichwal is a documentary filmmaker originally from Vancouver, B.C. who’s made films about the novelist Paul Bowles, the Appalachian photographer Shelby Lee Adams, and now, an excellent film based on the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. She holds degrees in philosophy and religious studies from McGill University, and she speaks in multiple-paragraph essays.
The Stranger: First I want to ask about your making movies about existing art. I guess you’ve done three of those so far—one about a novelist…
Jennifer Baichwal: There’s something about beginning with a context that is already created. And the film that I’m working on right now, which is basically about the metaphysical effects of being struck by lightning, is contextless—and that’s scary for me. I think for me it has to do with a recognition that the arena of art, as an arena of inquiry, is extremely powerful. And also powerful in a lot of different ways—in a visceral way, for example, so that it gives you the capacity to react to something emotionally, to have emotional truth rather than just intellectual truth. And so when I see the work of certain people, it immediately brings out something in me. With Paul Bowles—I met Paul Bowles when I ran away to Morocco when I was a teenager.
I had read about that.
I was fascinated by the way he described that country, and by his status as a person who never fit in. He was always looking in from the outside. And he was, in some ways, the impossible subject for a biographer. And deliberately so. He would contradict himself, and be deliberately elusive. And everything I saw that had been documented about him was a failure—from the person that I knew when I was living there. And I thought, how can you make a biography of a subject that is impossible to biographize—or whatever. So that film became a meditation on the impossibility of biography, and in the end, it was really just spending time with him, so that by the end of the film you felt like you knew him—that was as close to biography as I could get.
In the Shelby Lee Adams film, when I first saw those photographs—and I certainly didn’t intend to make two films about photographers back to back, because it’s really hard to make a film about a photographer. There are so many clichés you can fall into—the portrait of the artist, the darkroom moment, all of those things—how do you avoid that? And when I first saw Shelby’s work, what came to mind immediately was all of the problems of representation that we engage in all the time with every film that we make, and they were all crystallized in these photographs. Because when you first see those photographs, they bring up every kind of possible stereotype, you know, every mountain person, hillbilly stereotype imaginable. And you look at them and you think: Is it me, or is it them? Am I doing that? Are they doing that? Or am I just bringing all my preconceptions to them, and if I hadn’t seen Deliverance, I wouldn’t react this way. Or is he making me think of that, with this weird lighting and wide-angle lenses. The more I got involved in that, the more complicated it became. What is responsible representation? What’s fair representation? And some of the people in those photographs look like, if they met you, they’d kill you. And then when I did meet them, they were the nicest people in the world. So this arc from voyeurism into empathy, which I went through by meeting and spending time with these people, I wanted to re-create that arc in that film. And also use the work as this arena to examine issues of representation in documentary.
And then in Ed [Burtynsky]’s case, I’ve known his work for about 10 years, and when I first saw it, I was amazed at its capacity to shift environmental consciousness in a non-didactic way. It didn’t preach at you, but it immediately made you think of your own impact on the planet just by living in it. How do I damage the earth just by being alive and doing all the things I do? I’m conscious of throwing something away—what does that mean, away—there is no away. All of those things you do, it crystallized them, just by showing you these places that you are responsible for, but never normally get to see: the recycling yards, the factories, the mines. And so I thought if there was a way of extending the meaning of those photographs into the medium of film, into a time-based medium, in an intelligent way, where you could sort of live in the world of his photographs for the duration of the film—he’s the author of the film more than he is the subject of the film—then that would be incredible, because more people would witness his work. Not a lot of people go to art galleries and museums. And it really is just about that the artistic vision is where the most meaningful dialogue can go on, about how we live in the world. So that’s why I’m drawn to those artists.
And I love the fact that Bowles was—you know, he was an expatriate; he left the States and he never came back. I mean, he came back to New York once, for a music festival in his honor. But he really rejected it, unlike all those dilettante expatriates like Hemingway and even Burroughs. They all went away to establish themselves and then they came back in this swaggering, heroic kind of way. And I was fascinated that Bowles rejected American culture so completely—and why? That runs as a theme through his work.
So you’re saying that Edward Burtynsky becomes, in a way, the author of the film. But your hyper-contextualization of these beautiful aesthetic images has a sort of push-pull relationship with that art. By adding information, it does something that—maybe these people in the galleries aren’t looking at the images in the same way as someone who can look at an image and then pull back, and see way more.
Or move in, and see more details, more often, because he starts with such a wide frame, most of the time. He is the author. Sometimes you’ll forget about him, and then he’ll walk into the frame, and you’ll remember… that, you know, this is the vision of this person. But I really wanted to recreate the visceral experience of standing in front of one of those photographs. Because you are overwhelmed by scale—they’re five-by-six feet, they’re huge. But then, because he’s working with a large-format camera, the detail is extraordinary, and the resolution is extraordinary. So you look in close, and you see that the black dot from back here is a person, carrying a door, walking through a totally ruined landscape. And there are hundreds of them, and they’re all doing something. And you could follow all of them. There are these inherent narratives that are in this wide view.
I thought, if we could start with the same frame as Edward—which we often did—and then could put a long lens on it and focus on these details and try to follow those stories… Because they’re all there, in the wide view, but you have to look in close to see them. It was really important to me to keep moving back and forth—to emphasize this tension between wide view and detail or individual and mass. To see the faces of the women who spend their whole lives making spray mechanisms for irons. The depressing realization of the painstaking effort that goes into making even the things that we consider to be disposable. To truly witness that, you have to be close, you have to really see the face of that person who’s been doing this for 14 hours a day, every day. How many times does she repeat that gesture?
I assume Burtynsky has seen the film?
Oh yeah, I’m meeting him in San Francisco. He was really good about it. From the beginning I told him, Ed, I don’t want to make a film that is a biography. I don’t want to do the portrait of the artist. I don’t want the Edward Burtynsky was born in St. Catherines, Ontario… I don’t want to have you do those fake—“now walk in to frame, act thoughtful.” I just can’t do that. So we’ll just follow you around, and you do what you’re doing, and we’ll film you. He didn’t stage anything for us. And he was okay with that. He said, “I’m too young to have a retrospective. And I don’t want to be focused on in that way.” He didn’t have a lot to say in how we were going to translate the work.
Peter Mettler—you probably know his work as a filmmaker—when we asked him to shoot this film… Usually I work with my husband, Nick de Pencier, who’s a cinematographer, but we have two young children, so we couldn’t both go to China for a month. And we couldn’t take them, because we were hardly going to the Great Wall, you know—we were going to these horrible sites. We were thinking, Who could shoot this film? And Nick had worked with Peter before, we know him—it’s a small community in Canada—and we e-mailed him. He said, “That’s so odd that you asked, because Ed and I went to school together.” They were at Ryerson University together. And they’d always talked about doing something together. So it was this fantastic collusion where it worked really well.
Peter was a creative collaborator, more than a cinematographer—it’s always such a fluid relationship anyway—but we spent hours and hours talking about how you intelligently translate these works into a time-based medium and make them come alive on film. And so Ed was not that involved in how we did that, and he didn’t see any rough cuts. When I showed it to him, it was more or less coming toward a fine-cut stage. And it’s always nerve-wracking. Showing the film to Paul Bowles was terrifying. But, whatever. It is what it is.
So what was his reaction?
He liked it! He liked the fact that it focused on the work, and the fact that we went back and forth—I wanted to make indirect reference to the fact that most people do encounter these works in relatively elite environments, without making that a big deal. So you’re not sure whether you’re looking at a photograph, or our footage, or if you’re in the scene—there’s this ambiguity there, and it was important to me to establish that. He liked the way you didn’t know where you were sometimes, so that you say, wait a minute, now we’re back in the gallery. He was happy with it. And it’s having a response that—it’s striking such a chord—it’s doing really well. I’m kind of amazed by that because it’s a fairly meditative film; it’s experimental, there’s hardly any dialogue in it. I think that’s a testament to the power of the photographs.
That long pan at the beginning, in the factory, is amazing. It reminded me immediately of—have you seen Our Daily Bread?
No, I’ve been trying to see Our Daily Bread for months. And there are about four people trying to get me a copy of it. You know, we were thinking of doing a documentary on the industrialization of food—with Michael Pollan.
That would be great. You should still totally do that.
Is there a scene like that in Our Daily Bread then?
Yeah, well, it’s really grid-oriented. A lot of horizontal and forward tracking shots. I guess I’m particularly thinking of this series of shots about peppers growing on these trellises. They’re growing out of soil that’s in these plastic packages, so it’s just this little row of neat… dirt. With these otherworldly pepper vines growing out of them.
Oh, I’ve got to see it. That shot was a dolly shot. We mounted the camera on a golf cart and slowly moved through the length of that factory, which is about a half a kilometer long. That is a perfect example of trying to translate scale into time, into a time-based medium. How do we convey the scale of this place? The only way to do it was to make you literally sit through row upon row upon row. When you start off, it’s sort of interesting, and then you think credits are going to happen, and then it gets excruciating, it’s boring—and then you come out the other end of that boredom, into a recognition of what the scale really is. It saturates you in the scale.
I am curious about the ethical issues brought up by the visual pleasure that these photographs produce. In that scene where he’s trying to persuade the officials to let them film the coal distribution center—on the one hand it’s funny, when someone says, “but he makes garbage look beautiful.” On the other hand, that’s true, in a certain way.
That’s actually the reason I wanted to make a film about his work. Because I think the key to the power of that work is in that ambiguity. They are very aesthetically seductive photographs, and you are drawn into them almost before you know what you’re looking at. And then you realize you’re looking at garbage. And you recoil. So there’s this revulsion and attraction that happens in that work that is really an extraordinary experience.
Also, if they were documentary photographs that were straight documentary photographs, he would lose two thirds of his audience from the very beginning. There are people who don’t want to look at that stuff, and don’t see it as being valuable. The people who are looking at it would have already assented to the ideas he was trying to convey before they’d even seen the photographs. There is something that is widely appealing about the fact that they are so beautiful. I think that that’s what creates the dialogue about your impact. The beauty that brings you into the photograph—and then the recognition that this is not an abstract picture; that this is a picture of millions of pieces of e-waste. And probably my old cell phone is somewhere like that. It’s a troubling thing, but that’s why they work, I think.