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PARK CITY '07 INTERVIEW | Jennifer Baichwal: "Burtynsky's images are a perfect metaphor for the lite

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 18, 2007 at 4:27AM

[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
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[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]

Award winning filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal's previous film "The True Meaning of Pictures" explored the work of Appalachian photographer Shelby Lee Adams and had its U.S. premiere at Sundance in 2003. With her current film, Baichwal documents another photographer and expands her canvas. "Manufactured Landscapes" follows renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky, known for his large-scale work of industrial landscapes that serve as a window into man's complex relationship with the planet. Among his projects that Baichwal covers is the controversial Three Gorges Dam of China that displaced entire villages. "Manufactured Landscapes" screens as part of Sundance's World Documentary Competition.

Please introduce yourself...

I have been making documentaries for about twelve years. I was born in Montreal and grew up on the west coast of Canada in Victoria, B.C.--an idyllic place. Now I live in Toronto with my husband, Nick de Pencier (we work to), and my two kids.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I started out studying philosophy and did a master's degree in theology. I was sort of poised to become an academic and then started considering the limitations of the medium of enquiry - the thesis, the scholarly paper. I wanted to find a more lateral way of exploring the issues I was interested in - identity and epistemology, etc. - and turned to film.

How did you learn about filmmaking?

I didn't go to film school--I learned by doing. My first film was an exploration of the problem of identity ("Looking You In the Back of the Head") which basically asked 10 women to try to describe themselves, and tried to establish a metaphoric visual/text relationship. It was a dramatic learning curve.

Please discuss the evolution of "Manufactured Landscapes."

I have followed Burtynsky's work for about fifteen years, since the quarries. Those images in particular are such a perfect metaphor for the literal hole in the ground we create gathering materials to make things. Then around three years ago, our friend and co-producer Daniel Iron came to me with about 60 hours of mini dv footage of Burtynsky on location in China and Bangladesh. The person who had shot it, Jeff Powis, was a photographer and customer at the lab Burtynsky owns in Toronto (Toronto Image Works) and wanted someone to look through it to see if a film could be made.

I watched the footage with an editor friend, David Wharnsby, and we figured out that we couldn't make a film with just that footage, but could incorporate it into a film that used the photographs as the starting point. Burtynsky and Powis agreed, and a few months later, I was in China following Burtynsky as he completed his photographic essay on China. The financing--from the National Film Board, TVOntario, Bravo, Rogers, etc.--came together very quickly (a rarity).

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film?

The idea from the beginning was to avoid a biographical approach. I wanted to extend the photographs, which are stunning and disturbing at the same time, into the medium of film. It took quite a lot of discussion, particularly between me and Peter Mettler, to figure out how to do that in a meaningful way.

What do you hope to get out of the festival?

We (myself and Roland Schlimme) edited the film for eight months, and that process is a fairly isolated one. The gratification of having the immediate response of an audience is incredible! We were at Sundance with "The True Meaning of Pictures" in 2002, and are looking forward to going back. It is the ideal place to launch in the U.S. Zeitgeist Films (with whom we have worked before, on "Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles") is distributing the film in the States, and Celluloid Dreams is the international sales agent, so we will have the support of both at the festival, which is great.

What is your definition of "independent film?"

In my mind, independent film is anything created without a safety net underneath--an institution, a studio, etc. It can be pretty marginal. However, and this might sound corny or idealistic, I would never trade artistic freedom for financial security!

What are some of your favorite films?

I'm a big fan of Chris Marker.

What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?

Two new year's resolutions:
- Use and buy less.
- Embrace winter.

Get the latest coverage of Park City '07 in indieWIRE's special section here at indieWIRE.com

This article is related to: Features, Interviews