Every year the Planet in Focus festival showcase some of the most high profile features, shorts, and documentaries that highlight how we humans interact with our surroundings for better or worse, and every year the festival (running this October 10 to the 14 out of Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox) chooses one filmmaker to become the recipient of the Canadian Eco Hero Award. The award goes to someone who best exemplifies a filmmaker or producer creating work that constantly makes the viewer think about their role in the environment and the world around them.
This year the award goes to filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, the director of such well known documentaries as the seminal Manufactured Landscapes and her collaboration last year with Margaret Atwood, Payback. Her career started over fifteen years ago when she got into filmmaking after originally going to McGill for philosophy and theology. From her first feature documentary, Let it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, to her most recent film that looks at how certain successful economic systems have affected us for the worse, Baichwal has never been as up front about talking about the impact we have directly on nature, but it has always been there from the start. Her decidedly unique tone – free of any sort of didacticism, allowing viewers to draw their own well thought out conclusions – makes her one of the most interesting and most deserving recipients of the prize to date.
Baichwal will be talking in conversation with Adam Nayman from The Grid and CinemaScope at the Lightbox on Friday, October 12 at 7:15 p.m. (following a special $5 screening of Manufactured Landscapes at 5:15 p.m.). We talked to her in advance of her big night to discuss her career and all the moments that have led to this point.
Criticize This: You really started your professional career at McGill where you were originally studying philosophy and theology. What made you want to make the jump to documentary filmmaking?
Jennifer Bacihwal: Well, I still think the questions I was sort of exploring in that post-graduate environment are the same ones we’re doing in the films we do now, but I was kind of frustrated by the medium of enquiry because it was very narrow. I wrote a masters thesis on Reinhold Nieburh’s doctrine of sin and I’m sure that maybe only three people read it [laughs]. My advisor, the outside reader, and maybe one other graduate student who was doing work on the same thing. So it all felt a little bit marginalized and I was interested in the combination of text and visual material as a way of conveying ideas and exploring questions, and that’s how it started. I was self taught, essentially. I got a Canadian Council grant for my first film, and that film was kind of my school that taught me about the long, slow learning curve that I’m still on when it comes to making documentaries.
CT: Do you think your educational background contributed or informed in any way to your desire to make films that don’t have a didactic tone to them?
JB: I think that I’m sure that had something to do with it. I find the sort of linear approach to filmmaking to be reductive, and I think that reality is complex. One of the most important things that we can do in life is to give sustained attention to questions that are not easily answerable. I think that in that sustained reflection on those questions you open up a bigger space to think about it. I do think that consciousness can change that pondering when you have something other than hard black and white answers. I think that other documentaries – and some of them are very good – exist only to enhance a particular thesis; like a bulldozer just going straight for one target. To me, and partly because of the philosophical explorations that I did in university, it’s difficult and sometimes quite dangerous to be so black and white about things.
CT: For your first feature Let It Come Down, I read that you had become a bit more attached to doing something about Paul Bowles after you had “run away” to Morocco when you were younger. Do you think that sort of impulsiveness really ended up informing who you are as a filmmaker?
JB: The running away thing was probably ill advised. That was before I went back to university and before I went to McGill to get my masters. I was in university and not very happy. I had been reading Paul Bowles since I was a teenager and I was fascinated by the way he described Morocco. I was also fascinated by the fact that he was somebody who had rejected American culture, because living in Canada there’s definitely that shadow. (laughs) I lived with that shadow and have sort of chased against it for most of my life. I liked that this man went away and stayed away unlike many of his friends at the time. He was friends with Gore Vidal and Truman Capote and then later the beat writers like Orlovsky and Ginsberg, and all of them sort of came back to a certain extent. Maybe less so with Vidal, but even he came back to form his own American identity, and Bowles just didn’t want any of that.
I went there to meet him and I ended up living there for a year. It was ten years later that I sort of reflected on the fact that there had not been any true likeness of him in any of the biographies that I had read or a couple of other films on him that had been made. He always seemed to be so guarded that after having known him I though there was something more here that wasn’t being conveyed. I wrote to him and asked him if he would be interested in us making a film, and that’s how the whole sort of thing started. And that’s also how I met Nick (de Pencier), who’s my partner and work partner.
I guess that willingness to let that happen was really got things started for us, because it was self financed. It took years and years to make and years and years to break even on, but because it did relatively well when it was released it allowed us a great break to get into the industry and start to get real financing for future projects.
CT: Looking back on it now as a film that you made when you were still a developing director and you’re taking on someone that you have a great deal of admiration for, do you think you might have handled the subject a little differently? Or did you really feel any kind of pressure to keep the film balanced at the time?
JB: Oh, I didn’t feel that kind of pressure at all because it was so fascinating and it was so wonderful to be there. I mean, it’s not hagiographic. One of the things I was sort of intent upon was to figure out the problem of biography in this film. Biography is impossible, really. You either sort of have the recitation of fact – this person was born here, they grew up here, the got married, they did this, whatever – and that’s supposed to convey someone, or you have someone who’s organizing psychological principals to describe them, like “He hated his father,” which was the one that was always used for Bowles. And again, that’s reductive. So I thought, “How do you do biography.” He was a kind of perfect candidate for that exploration because he was such a wily, complex character who was always hiding on one level or another.
I did so much research, and a lot of it was just because I was so interested by him. I was reading him, his wife, all of his friends, that by about the time I got to Morocco and we ended up doing almost a 30 hour interview with him over the course of ten days. He was lying in bed most of the time because he was in his 80s. We would have tea and the boom pole was in a pile of sweaters at the foot of his bed and Nick was just behind me with the camera. We shot a combination of film and video; video for the interviews and 16mm for the visual sequences.
We just sat with him and walked through his life and it was the most intimate and profound sort of interview I’ve ever done even now. It felt like we were walking through that life together. He was in that weird, almost omniscient place already where he’s looking down on everything from a great height looking back on the past. I just tapped into that ongoing stream, and at the end of it he said “I didn’t even know when the camera was on.” That was how I wanted it to be.
Now, editing it all was another matter. (laughs) That was hard to figure out how to make that stream work, but the thing I learned about biography was that the only way you could do biography was to really come to know someone. I think in the course of the film and because of the intimacy of that interview, you feel like you know Bowles in some way. So I was happy about that.
CT: The Holier It Gets, your next project at the time, was and probably still is your most personal work. The purpose of the trip and delivering your fathers ashes to India to fulfil a last request is something easily relatable and hard to properly frame into a narrative because of the emotions involved with it. Do you right now think it was a more difficult film to make as one of your first projects? What was the emotion like that was driving you to make that one?
JB: When I say that the university work and the ideas really came through into the films, I mean that they’re about problems that I don’t think are necessarily easy to figure out and fascinating on some level. In that case, I do think I entered that film a bit flippantly and I hadn’t fully realized what I had taken on as we continued on the trip and as I came back into the edit room. I learned a lot from that film.
My goal there was to look at the problems of creating a confessional work, because many documentarians tend to turn to personal stories because the access is easy, but it’s very easy to fall into one of two traps: either the trap of assuming that what’s significant to you is significant to others, or the trap of playing so much to your audience that you lose the authenticity of the experience that you’re trying to describe. I had all of those failures and stumbling points while we were shooting and editing.
One of the things that I learned from that film since it was the first one that we ever got TeleFilm financing and a broadcaster pre-sale for was that nothing would turn out the way you originally planned it. When I first got into the editing room I thought I had to find a way to make the experience fit the plan we had because that was what we told everybody was going to happen. It took me three months or something that things not going according to plan was precisely where and why the film starts. It was by submitting to that and letting the reality of that take over that the film sort of got realized.
CT: Even in the film when you show up on camera you seem very exhausted at points, as well. Was there ever a point where you considered abandoning the project?
JB: Oh, all the time! I felt like that on the trip. I was wondering why I was doing this and thinking that I should just be here with my family and having this experience, but of course for the whole time I’m trying to make it into something else. I felt like that, and I felt like I would have to give back the money, and all that stuff. I went through all of that, and when I say it was a huge learning curve, I mean I learned that making personal work is really difficult. Even the editor who was putting it together and seeing me on camera was cringing at the beginning of that experience. I realized that I just had to be as honest and particular as possible in that experience, rather than trying to be universal or to extrapolate from that and make some sort of generalized thoughts on the death of a parent, which would have been incredibly pretentious. It was only by getting to the very heart and the particularity of that story, which was very difficult because it involved an incredible honesty about our situation there, that it was how the story would resonate with others.
CT: Moving on to The True Meaning of Pictures. This was the first time that you were literally looking at something through the literal lens of another artist. Did you feel it was more important to properly analyze the work of Shelby Lee Adams or to contextualize it to allow for more open conclusions to be drawn from the material?
JB: I think the two things sort of went hand in hand. The whole film is an argument about the problem of representation that doesn’t come to a conclusion either way. It lets the viewer make up their own mind about Adams. Even I still don’t really know how I feel about Adams’ work because it’s complex. He has real relationships with people for generations, on the one hand. On the other hand, he thinks that there’s no contradiction between claiming something is a self-portrait and something that’s an authentic portrait of someone else.
For me there was a density in that film that we had to be really careful of. A density in terms of words, and ideas, and arguments, and that had to be balanced with the experience of being with Adams’ subjects. I think one of the reasons why I wanted to make that film was because when I first saw Adams’ photographs at the Stephen Bulger Gallery I was immediately confronted with that whole sort of voyeuristic dilemma. Here I am in a beautiful gallery looking at pictures of extremely marginal people; caricatured people. Those caricatures were all brought to mind when you looked at these pictures. “Oh, this guy’s gonna chase me with a gun if I come on his land,” or something like that.
When we actually got there and spent some time with these people they were obviously nothing like that. They were just like us. That journey from voyeurism to empathy that we went thought while making that film was the same journey that we wanted the viewer to have, and to realize that same journey to reach that same place of empathy. The time that we spent with Adams’ subjects was really to that end. The argument was the stream that all of that stuff fit into. Balancing the two was tough, but I knew that they both had to be there in order for it to work.
CT: This film also builds an interesting bridge to your next film, Manufactured Landscapes. Was there anything that you learned about working this closely with Adams’ work that informed how you would approach someone else’s photographic work in the next film?
JB: Well, I knew that the sort of explicit reference to the frame was going to be important. We always had to have the viewer not always know what frame it was they were looking at so they don’t know if they’re looking at a moment when Ed (Burtynsky) was framing an image or if he was making it by other means.
I think all films about photography can be films about representation, but because we had already made this explicit argument about that, I didn’t want to make that same movie again, but I had wanted in more subtle ways to let the viewer understand that this is a moving target sort of thing.
On the other hand, the big issue with Burtynsky was that I was already kind of sold on the photographs before we started making the film. I found them very transformative, again in a non-didactic way. I thought two things: One, how do you translate photographs into the medium of film, and, two, how do you convey scale and time? Those two problems were kind of at the heart of that film, which was a different challenge then with Shelby’s work which was all portraiture. In Ed’s work, there were hardly any people unless the point was being made that these people were sort of cogs in a much bigger machine.
It was different in that respect, but I wanted to find a way of replicating the experience you have standing in front of his photographs. The resolution was so high that you were kind of confronted by the vast scenes, but if you look in closely you can see that there are hundreds of details and hundreds of narratives that are going on in one frame. For us to trace those frames and those narratives and finding ways for them to play out in film was very important and very difficult because we were shut down every time we tried to talk to anybody ordinary when we were in China. We couldn’t talk to anyone who wasn’t the official spokesperson of a place, so we had to find other ways of creating that narrative.
The spray mechanism women working in the iron factory became something that was important to show through the repetitive nature of their work at great length, through the looks of exhaustion on their faces and their hands. It was a different way of extending that narrative thread into the macro.
CT: Did you or Edward really have any idea how big and now controversial this film and his work was about to become at the time?
JB: No. No. No idea. Believe me, it was hard to get the money to make that film. When it came together it came together quickly, but to get people to realize that we were making a meditative and slightly experimental film at that point about a photographer, many people went running in the opposite direction. We had no idea it would have the impact that it did.
I think part of it was that it was also a journey that Burtynsky was already embarking on towards becoming more openly an environmentalist. I think the ambiguity in his work was probably the strongest aspect of it, and that still exists. Not an ambiguity in saying if something is right or wrong, but the fact that you’re confronted with the difference between what the image is and what you are actually seeing.
For me, the personal responsibility for me that came from depicting where we were, which is something that’s impossible not to be changed by. I suppose that the experience that I had in China with Ed, which was deeply profound, was something that was translated in the film for other people, which was great.
CT: Coming off of that you lead into something that’s a little more ambiguous with Act of God, which might be the most openly philosophical of all your films. I don’t mean for this to sound derogatory in any way, but did this film feel a bit like retreating a bit more back into your comfort zone?
JB: Not really, because the issue there was what if you took a scientific subject and dealt with it in a completely philosophical or metaphysical way. What if you just avoid the scientific element of it, and that was kind of the challenge. Could you explore this? And it seemed like from our research that anybody who had an experience with lightning could not help but ascribe meaning to it. At that point it becomes almost a religious question. Is there meaning? Even people who denied meaning from the experience and said that it was just something that was random or it was an effect of weather or electricity, they still couldn’t help but have this have a profound effect on their lives. I found that quite fascinating. The idea was questioning how far you could go with a subject like this without explanation. Can it just remain a mystery and can you just accept this idea of how we look for meaning in events like this.
It wasn’t as much of a retreat as it was the most experimental film we’ve made. It’s the most visual film that we made in a way that it’s just about being immersed in an experience. Shooting it was really interesting because a lot of that lightning footage we shot ourselves over the course of the year. We were in those storms and they’re scary and overwhelming. (laughs)
CT: It’s also a different kind of a personal narrative for the people involved in that they aren’t exactly known figures to the public at large like a lot of the past subjects we just discussed. Did you find the tone to make those stories resonate more to be a little harder when you don’t have as much background to work with?
JB: Yeah. With people who have a public record you have more to deal with and you can do more research, whereas when you’re dealing with people like that, the only way to deal with it was to just spend time with them.
The first film we ever did was called Looking You in the Back of the Head, which was a bunch of women, none of them famous, trying to describe themselves. I’m kind of embarrassed by it now because it looks kind of like a student film, but the point of it was to show that you really can’t describe yourself. All of those women were fascinating and totally ordinary. I think that everybody in Act of God has stories that are moving, but they were stories that we embarked on and kept going with them wherever they took us.
CT: For your next film, you took on what many would think would be the incredibly daunting task of trying to adapt Margaret Atwood’s Payback. What was it like trying to take on a text like that and what was your working relationship with Atwood like?
JB: I mean, of course it’s extremely intimidating to even consider working with her, and I really didn’t agree to make the film for a full year after I was approached by the National Film Board because I said that if I can’t figure out a way to make this work then I wasn’t going to do it.
So once the idea came to start doing the film from a number of different perspectives, I met with Atwood a couple of times over the course of about a year and a half, because I knew that for me the only way that it could work if we told these real stories that tie into what these ideas about what debt really is and secondly it could only really work if she was there as a subject. Instead of following the root of the moving away from the root of why she wrote it and how she came up with it, we had to find a way to make her an author instead of a subject. It was sort of like how Edward was the author and not just the subject of Manufactured Landscapes. You sort of forget about him and then you look within the frame and you realize you’re looking back at him.
In this case, I struggled with how she would be portrayed in the film or how she would be in the film. I kept stripping back from all of the circles around the book and why she wrote the book and kept going back to the text. She’s a writer and they write for a reason, and for her the words are the most important thing. So I felt that I would just use the words and we would get a narrator to read them. Then I listened to the lectures and I realized that these were not originally written to be read, but they were written to be delivered live. When I heard them in the recordings, I knew that was the way she had to be in the film. It was the way she originally delivered those words.
I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but the book is a very broad and wide ranging exploration. It’s a riff on an idea and she always walks around the obvious, which is that “debt is money.” I found that fascinating, too especially in light of all the films that came after the market crash, which she sort of predicted in her book, I asked if we could make that same film without reference to monetary debt at all.
It was very daunting and scary to work with Atwood, but when I met with her she was extremely giving, funny, nice, and well connected. That was extraordinary. That was the real challenge, though, Trying to take this conversational riff on an idea behind this grand essay and try to make it make sense.
CT: You’re also introducing other than Atwood as a narrator, a bunch of other sub-narrators that have to deliver a different part of the story. When you’re approaching people to speak about the other segments of the film, what was it exactly that you were looking for?
JB: Well, Conrad Black we approached because he reviewed the book for the LRC and he gave a really interesting analysis of it. We were going to interview him while he was still incarcerated, but we were turned down, so we got in touch with him again while he was briefly out and we interviewed him down in Florida. So he had the most direct kinship to the book.
In the other case they were more embodiments of the things she brought up. There’s a section that talks about revenge culture, so that got me thinking about what led to covering the Albanian blood feud that you see. She talks about paying your debt to society and what that means since it’s such a strange idea, so there was also the reason to have Black there.
And, of course, there’s the environmental aspect. The book ends with an environmental treatise. The last chapter in her mind is the biggest debt that we can’t really repay. Trying to think of a way of bringing that in without making it overshadow the issues of social justice was something that was difficult at first. The BP gulf spill had just happened as we were writing the treatment but it ended up fitting in to represent that perfectly.
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