Sunday, July 22, 2007

Power Of The Image: talking with Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky


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I've been focusing the majority of my filmgoing activity over the past few months to revivals and retrospectives, but I can say without question that there is at least one new film in Frisco Bay theatres absolutely worth the attention of moviegoers who prefer visionary cinematic achievements to would-be rollercoasters determined to be forgotten five minutes after exiting the mall: Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary on the work of "subliminal environmentalist" photographer Edward Burtynsky, and on the context he's found himself working in for the past several years: the factories, the energy extraction centers, and the rapidly transforming cities, villages, and post-industrial wastelands of modern China.

The award-winning film was directed by Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, whose often poetic approach to the material inspired me to track down her other films available on DVD: Let it Come Down: the Life of Paul Bowles and The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia. They're both excellent and the latter is a particularly compelling counterpart to Manufactured Landscapes. They're similar in that each film follows a photographer whose stunning compositions inspire drastically conflicting emotional reactions in viewers, and indeed sometimes within an individual viewer, but very different in approach to presenting these conflicts. Burtynsky's work has hung in the boardrooms of corporations that profit from the industry his images depict, as well as of activist organizations working to minimize the physical impact of human industry and globalization on our planet. In Manufactured Landscapes Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler have created an often horrifying, often beautiful, largely pictorial investigation of the apparent contradictions in Burtynsky's work.

When presented with an opportunity to speak with Baichwal and Burtynsky in late May, while they were in town together "doing press" on the film, I leapt despite my rather paltry experience with interviewing. I was nervous, and they were probably exhausted from being asked about the film all day, but if perhaps I didn't establish the rapport that other, more experienced interviewers like Glen Helfland and Michael Guillen seemed to, at least Baichwal and Burtynsky were comfortable with following up on each others' answers, and I felt lucky just to get to be in the room getting it all down thanks to my handheld digital recorder. The recorder was one of the first things mentioned when I sat down with them at a table in a room adjoining a publicist's office. Before I even had a chance to turn it on, I noted that it bore a label "Made in China." This launched Burtynsky into a story about his daughter...

Edward Burtynsky: It was three Christmases ago. We have the tradition of Christmas stockings that "Santa" brought. The youngest had just started to learned how to read. She pulled out a plush toy, and she looked at it. She read "Made in China" and she turned and looked up and said, "Hey Dad, even Santa shops in China!" [The room fills with laughter.] Out of the mouths of babes.

Hell on Frisco Bay: There was even a Santa Claus in the film.

Jennifer Baichwal: There were two Chris Marker moments in the film for me. One was the stills, at the coal distribution center, and the other was the hydrofoil. The whole scene on the hydrofoil reminded me of Sans Soleil, which is one of my very favorite films.

HoFB: I loved it when I saw it at the Castro several years ago.

JB: It's extraordinary, just the most incredible film, but [the hydrofoil scene in Manufactured Landscapes] reminded me of the people asleep on the ferry. This was only after, when I looked at the footage; I wasn't thinking about it when we were shooting it. [to Burtynsky, who nods:] Do you remember that scene with the Santa? With the guy on the boat just standing, looking at the Santa Claus sign. You ask "what is this thing doing here?"

HoFB: I saw Manufactured Landscapes at Sundance, and of all the films I saw there it's the one that has haunted me the most since January.

JB: It is pretty haunting. It was haunting being there. I'm still reminded of those locations where we were. I mean I think about that kind of thing every day now. And I'm beginning to look at how I'm engaging in this process that is directly related to what's happening over there. And trying not to.

HoFB: One of the workers, who is demolishing his own city to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, looks at a test photograph you've handed him, and he says "it's a very broad view; it's hard to see the details."

EB: Right.

HoFB: I was able to view your photographs in a gallery setting. There were I believe six of them on display in Park City during the festival. Looking at them in this setting, I definitely felt like it was easier to hone in on the details than when looking at a reproduction in a book, but I wonder if you also see the film as a presentation of some of the details that might get lost otherwise?

EB: I think the film successfully moves from a broader view, to look at some of the more nuanced, human scale moments that are within the subject. Jennifer was able to go into some of my photographs from the macro, and then follow some of the paths through the images, traversing some of these paths. It was used quite sparingly, but when it was, it was used very effectively. I think the film was in keeping with how one is confronted by the work itself. You start out seeing and trying to absorb the overall, and then you enter it, and because it's a large format, you're able to investigate the smaller things that often belie the scale. Often the scale isn't immediately present in the picture. It's only when you go in further that you start to find things you can understand the size of, like a ladder, or a 45-gallon drum, or a person, that it reveals itself in a way that would be difficult on a first view.

JB: It really is what we were wrestling with; how to translate these photographs intelligently into film. Peter and I talked about how we would move back and forth between the wide view and the detailed, which is how you look at those photographs. Because the detail is so extraordinary and the resolution is so extraordinary, you can see, when you look in close, all of these things happening. Then when you pull back, it's just about the scale. And often you're confused by the scale. At one point there's this truck and then you pull back and it looks like a little toy truck. You wouldn't have any idea how big that was unless you started there. There are tricks of scale where you really have to look to see. "Okay, that dot, that is a human. That's how big this place is." So we follow these inherent narratives that are there in the photographs. Teasing them out was a strategy that was something I really wanted to use; to keep moving back and forth in a rhythm, macro to micro.

HoFB: I remember one shot in particular, where the camera is traveling over some high-rises. We can't tell if the camera is flying over Shanghai, or one of Ed's photographs. And then it pulls back and we see we're looking over someone's shoulder, looking at the photograph.

JB: And you know what, that was important to me because issues of representation are. Every time you engage in the language of documentary or photography, you have to talk about that. On the other hand, you can't only talk about that. You can't be constantly self-referential, and just reflect on what it means to be representing just this person's view of a real place, and are we filming all those layers? But I really felt it was important to make reference to it, and include those deliberately confusing moments, where you're not sure where you are, or what vision you're looking at, what frame you're looking at. Is this reality? Is this the photograph, the image? Is it the photograph in another context? And that's sort of where we begin and end also: in the museum, making reference to the fact that in some ways that is the end point of this vision.

EB: One of the things that was consistent with what I'm doing, where Jennifer's coming from and where the cinematographer Peter is coming from, is that I think all of us are believers and proponents of very strong visual language. We're all interested in the Power Of The Image at a time when there's the Power Of Theory and the Power Of Concept. Not to say that the work is devoid of any of these things, but as visual people, we invest enormous amounts of energy to get the visuals right. That's something that I fight for in my work all the time, and I know that Peter does, and I know that Jennifer is just absolutely fastidious about getting what's possible out of the scene and out of the materials afterwards. So there is a visual determination of trying to translate all that through truly powerful visual narratives, and I think that probably has helped the film become a piece, and in a way a work of art in itself. It isn't a documentary on me; it's a parallel piece that exists in its own right.

JB: Art is really one arena of inquiry that allows you to engage intellectually and emotionally with issues. Take something like the Al Gore film which I felt was very powerful because of him, because of his commitment to what he was doing. It's a completely didactic film. It is an archive of a slide show. There is nothing artful about that film. Yet it... persuades you. Because of his passion. And in some ways, we end up at the same place through an entirely different route. A route of witnessing, of being in these places we are responsible for but don't normally see. I think the arena of art is a very powerful arena because of the possibility of melding the intellectual and the emotional.

EB: It leaves enough openness of meaning. The viewer has to conclude or put closure to it themselves. We're not saying, "this is how you have to think about it." Coming to those conclusions and arriving on them yourself is a much more powerful and lasting way to leave somebody with something than to say "you need to think about this this way". And most people coming out of the film, I would be willing to gamble, arrive at the same conclusion: "Uh, oh!"

JB: It is open-ended. It has to be. It can't be fixed. In the film there's enough to help you contextualize information without fixing the meaning, ever. Because for me, past films have been very dense; the last film with Shelby Lee Adams [the True Meaning of Pictures] was very dense with argument, you know. We were cutting between people literally having arguments on screen. For me, this film was really an exercise in restraint in allowing the images to lead and the pictures to tell the story, and to then pull back. Somebody asked me, "What are you most proud of?", and I'm proud that I was able to do that. To pull back and let it be as sparse as it was, as it needed to be.

HoFB: One word I used in writing on the film for GreenCine was "neutrality"...

EB: I don't know if that actually describes the film at all. If it were truly neutral, then there would be no problem for us screening the film in China, and that's a big question for us right now. What is neutral? Is it culturally, is it globally, or in China, where they see their neutrality differently than the free market democratic system we see as neutral? So I think it's almost like "what is normal?" How do we place it, when every culture has a different definition of what is normal. I think "what is neutral" is an equally slippery kind of idea to pin down. "Neutral" is almost paralleling "objective". We're forever wondering if we could ever achieve objectivity. Media are not objective, whether we use stills or film, or whatever.

JB: I don't think any sane person could argue for objectivity, which in some ways is the same thing as neutrality. It's impossible. Neutrality almost feels like nothing, like you're in a place that is not advocating anything. The difference here is that the complexity of what you're seeing in the film does not allow you to have a simple response. There are so many layers. You know, the idea that somebody thousands of miles away is making the spray mechanism for your iron that you use every day, that is shipped here, and when you throw it away, goes back there. The complexity of this, and the fact that there are no easy answers to this predicament that we find ourselves in, that's what I mean by being "open-ended."

HoFB: Are the photographs shown in China?

EB: The book is for sale in China. It sold well there.

JB: Wow.

EB: The book is in China, and with no adverse effects. If they had a problem, they would approach Noah [Weinzweig, producer and translater], I think. Because Noah is the one who made it all happen. But nobody's ever talked to him. No-one's ever given him any grief. I think that they're so very busy there, with too many bigger fish to fry, in terms of issues. And I think that they also recognize that they have to open up. They are opening up. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World's Fair, they're inviting the world and it's press into what's normally a fairly closed, controlled society. You can't control 8,000 reporters walking around the streets of Beijing, and not have them interact with your people, and hear stories from their mouths. That's what they really don't like. I mean, where they get upset is where we're at Three Gorges Dam, or we're talking to a factory worker or we're talking to a ship worker and it's not the worker that they want, and their story isn't "I'm a happy worker here in China, happily making more money than I was as an unhappy farmer". That's the story they want you to tell. "We're moving ahead, modernizing, and we're bringing our people out of poverty. And yes we know we've got some problems. We're working on that. But don't just focus on the problems. Please, take a look at the fact that we have lots of positive stories." And you know what? It's true. It's not all bad, and it's not all simple. Also, I bet you we can go into North America with a film camera and we can find the some of the same waste and the same dreck work happening here. It's still happening here. I did that kind of dreck work when I was going through school.

JB: And you photographed it.

EB: Yeah. It's not that we've left that chapter completely, but it is true that the chapter's shifting. It is moving over there, and though it still exists here, it's still an industrial process and an issue.

JB: It's just that it's so much bigger over there, and it's so dirty. We find it pretty easy to send the things away that we now know to be dirty, and move them to a another place.

EB: Right, and it's so much bigger because in the last fifteen years we added 4 point something billion people to the planet.

HoFB: You tell the story in the film about your oil epiphany, and I found that was really interesting, where at one point you were driving in your car, and you were realizing...

EB: That all roads led back to oil.

HoFB: Right. And you also talk a bit about shooting film stock with silver in it at a silver mine, and I've been recently reading about nitrate stock, and how in 1926 up to one-thirtieth of all the world's silver supply was tied up in the motion picture industry. It's been making me think about how the appeal of art for humans might, consciously or not, be in the stain that it leaves on the planet.

EB: The appeal of art is that people have found meaning in the marks that they leave behind, from the first cave paintings in Lascaux. From the earliest mark-making, I think it's still the same impulse. We find meaning in trying to tell stories about our passing, and our perceptions of what we see. For most artists who devote their lives to it, it's something you really can't control. The need to leave those marks is the reason you get up. Because you're interested in that process, and being able to translate your world through another channel, or create some new form or new way of expressing yourself.

JB: One of the things that drew me to the photographs in the beginning was that Ed acknowledges his own implication, and we all have to acknowledge our own implication. Existing environmental discourses, early environmental discourses were very polarizing. Very much a kind of us-and-them situation advocating radical solutions while most people just could not imagine living that way. So not a lot happened. I think there's something about the acknowledgment: "I'm steeped in this." Ed went [to China] first to find out where his computer went when it died. I've probably filled the tank in my car with oil from one of these tankers. We're all joined to these processes and it's not easy. How are we going to get out of it? We all have to get out of it together, and that acknowledgment of complexity is very powerful to me, in him as a person saying that, and also in his work. In these processes that he's photographing instead of just having this, "I'm good and you're bad, and if you were like me you'd stop what you're doing."

EB: The first of the twelve steps of AA is to acknowledge the problem.

JB: [laughing] Acknowledge the addiction.

HoFB: Well, it looks like I have to acknowledge that my time is up, so thank you both for your insights into this marvelous, important film.

And in came the next interviewer...

Manufactured Landscapes is currently playing at the single-screen Lark Theatre in Marin County, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Lumiere Theatre here in Frisco.