Monday, June 04, 2007

MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPESThe Evening Class Interview With Director Jennifer Baichwal and Photographer Edward Burtynsky

"Which way to go? Some line gets drawn. What line is this? Which way to go? Could be a threshold or a precipice."—Joni Mitchell, "Fiction" from Dog Eat Dog.

Edward Burtynsky is known as one of Canada's most respected photographers. His remarkable photographic depictions of global industrial landscapes are included in the collections of 15 major museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Born in 1955 of Ukrainian heritage in St. Catherines, Ontario, Burtynsky is a graduate of Ryerson University and Niagra College. He links his early exposure to the sites and images of the General Motors plant in his hometown to the development of his photographic work. His imagery explores the intricate link between industry and nature, combining the raw elements of mining, quarrying, shipping, oil production and recycling into eloquent, highly expressive visions that find beauty and humanity in the most unlikely of places.

Jennifer Baichwal was born in Montréal and grew up in Victoria, British Columbia. Her first feature documentary, Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1998 and won a 1999 International Emmy for Best Arts Documentary. The True Meaning of Pictures is a feature length film on the work of Appalachian photographer Shelby Lee Adams. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002 and played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003.

Manufactured Landscapes is Baichwal's feature length documentary on the world and work of Burtynsky. The film follows Burtynsky to China as he travels the country photographing the evidence and effects of that country's massive industrial revolution. Manufactured Landscapes won the City Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. The Toronto Film Critics Association then awarded it Best Feature documentary and Best Canadian Film for 2006. The Atlantic Film Festival and Calgary Film Festival both awarded it Best Canadian Film and the Nashville International Film Festival honored the film with the Reel Current Award. At this year's Genie Awards Manufactured Landscapes scored the award for Best Documentary.

When I arrive at the Larsen Associates offices to interview Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky for Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal is calmly knitting a grey blanket and Burtynsky looks a bit worn from the press junket.

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Michael Guillén: Congratulations on a consummately visual film. It's going to be interesting to watch this one generate buzz.

Edward Burtynsky: You think this film has promise in this market?

Guillén: It's hard for me to say being a San Franciscan because we have weird eyes.

Jennifer Baichwal: [Laughs.]

Guillén: But definitely I expect that in the Bay Area audiences are going to fully appreciate Manufactured Landscapes. On second thought, I shouldn't be so tentative. Yes, all around the country this film will be appreciated. I want to believe that the public is becoming more conscious. I have to believe that.

Burtynsky: You have to have hope.

Guillén: I have to have hope and films like Manufactured Landscapes provide a platform by which people can articulate that hope.

Baichwal: That's interesting.

Guillén: One of the film's most compelling structural tensions is that you, Edward, are a still photographer and you, Jennifer, are a moviemaker. [Addressing Jennifer] You approached making your film at a unique angle. You didn't make a film about Edward Burtynsky, you ceded authorship to him, which as Ed's website puts it, "extends the narrative stream" of his photographs. Variety's Peter Debruge has written that you have "deftly use[d] the moving image to reinforce the spirit of Burtynsky's still pictures, expanding the discourse by providing valuable context." You let Edward's photographs speak for themselves. How did the two of you negotiate this approach?

Baichwal: The way that this film happened was a bit convoluted in that I followed [Ed's] work for a long time and an old friend of mine [and one of the film's producers, Daniel Iron] came to me and said, "Someone's come to me with 80 hours of mini-DV footage of Ed on location at different places. Can you look at it and see if you can turn it into a film?" That's how it started. He came to me because he knew I was a big fan of Ed's work. So I looked at this 80 hours of footage and realized I couldn't make a film of that but in a way it was almost a lesson of what not to do; it was great to be able to see that and it was in some ways invaluable footage. It was shot by a photographer named Jeff Powis who followed Ed around and amassed this footage but then didn't know what to do with it or couldn't form it into something and wanted someone to look at it. I said, "What about if we incorporate this stuff"—all the black and white stuff in the film is shot by Jeff—"what if we incorporate this footage into a film and use it as a kind of counterpoint? Use it in a film that begins with the photographs and uses the photographs as a departure point and tries to translate the photographs intelligently into the medium of film?" Ed and I had a meeting about it. He had seen our films before so he knew what those were like. We talked it through. He also wanted something like that.

The biography is a very particular form. I did a biography of the author Paul Bowles, which was basically a film that said it's impossible to make a biography, to do a biography that's not totally reductive. It really is just about being with somebody for long enough that you feel like you know them by the end of the film. That's what we tried to do in that film. I also didn't want to do an artist's portrait because the genre of that type of film is very specific as well and this idea of demystifying the creative process—or all of the clichés that you could fall into in that way—also took away from the power of these photographs. When I first saw them, I was both mesmerized and repulsed simultaneously. I was in this terrible, fascinating place of looking at a beautiful representation—beautiful is not the right word—visually compelling representation of garbage, of something that I was directly in some ways responsible for. I knew from the very beginning that if we were going to make a film it would have to enter into the world of the photographs and for Ed to be the author—as you said—rather than the subject of the film.

Guillén: I very much appreciated the documentary's contemplative movement around Ed's photographs. Case in point: the sequence where Ed's shown setting up a shot, you hear the shutter click, you see the finalized image, and then the camera backs up and the audience realizes they are looking at one of Ed's photographs as displayed in a gallery exhibition with patrons of that gallery evaluating the photograph. That sequence effectively set up two different forms of contemplation. Your photographs, Ed, are deeply contemplative; they require the viewer's participation and you, Jennifer, emulated Ed's contemplative aesthetic. Especially, let's say, in that opening dolly shot where the camera glides along looking at the factory workers, and it goes on and on and on and on until my mind necessarily shifted in order to take this in and I realized I had to….

Baichwal: Be here now.

Guillén: Be here now! Exactly! Forever! [We all erupt into laughter.] That sequence—which is such an incredible way to start this film—reminded me of the closing sequence in Juan Carlos Rulfo's En El Hoyo (In the Pit).

Baichwal: I'd love to look at that. [She writes it down.]

Guillén: That Mexican documentary is likewise a study of a huge multi-tiered freeway construction project being built through the heart of Mexico City, involving thousands and thousands of workers. Rulfo's approach varies in that his documentary begins with a close-up portrait of one team of workers—four or five men whose stories you learn—and then at film's end the camera lifts up out of their specific location and, via helicopter, sweeps the full length of the project for miles and miles and miles, literally taking your breath away with the immensity of the project and the thousands of workers involved. What I find so compelling about Rulfo's coda to his documentary and the gist of your's—and I'm sure you've been asked this five thousand times—is the scale. We have to talk about scale. What is it about the grandiosity of this scale that puts people into a conflicted position—as you've stated, Jennifer—of finding these gargantuan manmade projects aesthetically arresting?

Burtynsky: [Ed references the cover photo of his book on China, which is on the table.] I often shoot—even in this shot here—from an elevated position. Someone has referred to it as "the God's eye view." It's as if you're up, looking down. At first I used to always look for the natural scaffolding—a rooftop or some structure I could get up on—and then I said, "Screw it, I'm just going to rent lifts and get myself there. Then I'm going to imagine myself in the place where it would be most interesting to look at the world." What I find is that when you do get that elevated view [you realize that]—when you're down on the ground level—that mid-distance disappears very quickly and there's no way you can get the sense of this infinite workforce. That's what I wanted to see: this infinite workforce; that there's 400 million Chinese out in the countryside waiting to come into this workforce.

So it's trying to, again, take ideas and to engage them to create tableaux—images that stand in for a larger movement—but, these things are the surrogate of that greater movement because you can't ever show the whole thing; the still image only shows a frame, or you can show a diptych or a panorama but you're still locked to a singular point of view. Film—as in that opening shot—allows you to expand that point of view and take that compression of the view that I took and decompress it and stretch it. [Film] can give you the full force of it and is a great equivalent to the diptych within my book in that it takes the accordion and stretches it out and lets you look at the edge of it versus looking across the peak of it.

Baichwal: But you do the biggest frames? That's also part of your work?

Burtynsky: Yeah. In terms of when someone looks at [my work] and says, "How do you choose your subjects?", when I decide to do something—whether it's a factory or whether it's a mine or whether it's a quarry—[the challenge is] how do you go from the general to the specific? I want to do quarries. Well, there's quarries in every country of the world. How do I arrive [as] to which quarry? So then it's searching for the largest examples. It's in that largesse that I find that scale becomes interesting; that the surreal begins to have a role within the frame; that you can find in these massive operations moments that are almost at the edge of imagination. We never realized that there were worlds like these that we have created.

Guillén: Without question your documentary will be the first glimpse most people have of worlds like these; it was for me. I had no idea anything could be built or conceived on such a scale. That's what's so astounding about this documentary and its emphasis on the work that you're doing, Ed.

Baichwal: And it's the hubris of humanity. That we yearn for that scale. It's almost as if we're trying to make ourselves bigger and bigger and bigger. Something like the Three Gorges Dam is so massive. It's such a monumentally arrogant act to divert nature on such an enormous scale and yet it's the perfect expression of some—what is it?—is it the yearning of humans to be like gods? Is that what it is? We throw things around and completely transform the nature of the planet in our own endeavors as a way of asserting our power? I don't know. I don't know what it is.

Guillén: I come at it through my own background—I was trained in Central American archaeology with a focus on the Maya culture—where one of the main academic themes was the incredible impact this civilization had on its environment and that being possibly one of the reasons for its collapse. Then as someone who led tours through that part of the world and dealt with common misperceptions about the culture, one of the things that always struck me was the romanticized perception of this failed project of civilization and how it was reclaimed by nature as if to compensate for—as you say, Jennifer—human hubris. That makes me look at these massive projects that you've recorded, Ed, and wonder if such a compensation by nature is even possible? Can this hubris ever be reclaimed by nature? Do you think that these massive projects that are literally changing the face of the planet can be reclaimed by the planet, as they were with the Maya? I know that you've talked about geological time, Ed, as a context by which to understand how humans are cutting into geological time and literally changing the shape of the planet in a way that's never been done before.

Burtynsky: I've often pointed out—and I'm not the first person to point it out either—that we are now functioning on the planet as an element, with the force of an element. If you think of elements as water, air or fire, which all have a role in shaping the planet and its atmosphere, we are now an equivalent to that. We can actually change the nature of the planet. We're actually shifting the quality of the air, the quality of the water, and not necessarily in a positive direction, but in a direction. I certainly believe we've now moved clearly out of a moment of naiveté and this kind of belief that there's this endless resource that we'll keep, with our charts moving upwards and Wall Street [being] happy forever. There's a fracture, a fault line, that runs through all of it; we live in a finite world. There's only so much clean water. There's only so much stuff we can shove into the air before it starts to do something to us. There's only so many places where we can find minerals and—once we've hollowed all of them out—now what? We're going to have to mine our dumps for the stuff that we threw out 30-50 years ago to try to get those materials back. Or do we get saved by nano-technology where we create our brand-new materials that are better than what nature provided us? That's a possibility too. I certainly believe that the success of who we are as a species on the planet and what will really kick up our feet out from under us is that ultimately there's just not enough to go around to bring everybody up to a modern North American standard of life—which is varied in itself—but, if you averaged it and brought everybody up to that average, you'd have to determine that we're short a couple of Earths to be able to even [achieve] the level of food quality that we get as a daily intake.

We're at this trajectory where something's got to give. Something's going to give somewhere along this piece somewhere, whether it's in our lifetime or the next generation, but there's going to be a reckoning. As Al Gore puts it, we live in a time of consequence. Ultimately, I sensed—maybe more intuitively 25 years ago when I started on this project—that if I kept working on this idea that at some point—because I understood it—that the planet is a finite resource; there's a finite amount of stuff. But I just never imagined—I thought it would be a couple of hundred years out—I never imagined that in my lifetime we'd start fishing the oceans dry. I can't believe it. If you've ever flown over the Pacific Ocean, you'd think, "How can we fish that dry?" How could we do that? How could salmon stocks be at 10% of what they were? Or the tuna stocks be at 10% of what they were 50 years ago? It's hard to imagine how quickly and how rapidly we've accelerated that degradation. It's even surprised me in looking at this and all of a sudden just saying, "Hey." What's different today is it's wrought larger and it's moving faster than ever before; but, it's not slowing down. Now with China jumping on, India jumping on, we're just slamming on the gas pedal versus "Let's think about this."

Baichwal: I don't think these things will heal themselves. We can't recover without real concerted and very specific effort to stop. I was thinking when we were first getting into this [about] the weeds and their metaphors. What adapts to the new realities. Because there's always something that manages to adapt.

Burtynsky: Cockroaches and weeds?

Baichwal: Exactly. Cockroaches and dandelions; the things that manage to adapt to these new realities. The last scene of the film is in a place where we were on our way back to Beijing when we were not allowed to film at the coal distribution center. We stopped in this suburb that was so devastatingly free of any kind of organic matter whatsoever; a whole field that had nothing in it, no grass, nothing. There were no weeds. There was nothing alive. The earth had nothing organic in it; it was like ash. There was a coal plant belching out smoke in one corner, there were piles of coal, iron ore on the ground, trains taking the coal, and there were lots of apartment buildings. People were living in this environment. It wasn't like we were in some industrial park—whatever that means; I don't know why they're called that—industrial areas where there were no people living. People were living right there. They were walking around and kids were riding bicycles in this field, this wasteland. I thought, "God, this is really the future! This is where we're headed if we don't start thinking more clearly."

Guillén: Ed, I like how you liken humanity unto an elemental force of nature. That addresses a philosophical conundrum I've had for years, which is that—when you talk about nature—you must include human nature and its hubris as nature. That revolves around a sticky wicket that presumes the human species is supposed to survive when, possibly, we might just be a fire that blazes across the face of the planet and alters it until geological time steps back in and recontextualizes our time as a species on the planet.

Burtynsky: Right.

Guillén: That leads me to ask: you with your photography appear not to indict anyone; you seem more to be of witness.

Burtynsky: Yes.

Guillén: And yet there's a tension in the film. D.K. Holm at The Greencine Daily actually suggests the film is schizophrenic because—countering your photographic stance as a mere witness—Jennifer's documentary carries a more incriminative stance emphasizing her concerns, one might say her panic.

Baichwal: Certainly I think—and Ed can answer this too—but I think when Ed first started out, he acknowledges his own implication and he also acknowledges the complexity of this situation. Many environmental discourses are just too polarizing and too simplistic. They just don't move people because you can't be that radical. People are not going to drop everything and go live in a tent somewhere. I think that the acknowledgement of implication—that everything you do affects in some way—when Ed talks about everything being made of oil or the silver in his camera and I think about the dirty process of filmmaking and the chemicals that we use and all of that, even traveling here, our carbon footprint getting on a jet, all of those things, acknowledging them without laying blame and without assuming that there's an easy answer, we try to also do that in the film. We really did. We tried to present the complexity without leading one perspective more than the other. It is true that people working in these factories have more money than they did when they were living in the countryside. They're not necessarily unhappy. There's a hundred people or more waiting to take their job if they stop, if they decide they want to form a union or something and get fired; but, the cumulative effect of being in all of these environments—and my own personal experience of it—was such that I felt that I could not [deny] that we are at a precipice. The symbol of what is happening in China right now—where whole zones are collapsing in an environmental sense, where you can't drink the water anymore, where the earth is polluted—is for me a crisis. I was not trying to be overtly political because that wouldn't honor the photographs, but perhaps my own reaction to being in these places is what colored in some way the way that the film progresses and the way that it ends, which is kind of on a dark note. It's a heavy film.

Guillén: Not to deny that, but, the aesthetic arrest that I experience looking at Ed's photographs and the manner by which you extend his narrative through your documentary and prolong that state of aesthetic arrest is one of mindblowing scale—the immensity, the grandiosity, the largesse, as Ed put it—becomes a means of eloquence and uncomfortable beauty. It's like Job looking into the whirlwind. It's something so powerful in its scale that one is filled with awe. It is, in effect, awe-full, to grasp the source of that word. How can we call it beautiful if we want to survive as a species?

On the other hand—and to your credit, Ed—one of the most tender inflections in your photography and a personal face through which the political pours forth, is in the portrait you took of the old Chinese woman sitting on her front landing beside a pile of e-waste. Though on the complete opposite spectrum of your more characteristic work, that one image spoke volumes. As you stated in your interview with PingMag, Jennifer, facial close-ups "dignify the individual in this completely undignified landscape." Following through on that human accent, I likewise appreciated your interviews of the workers. By contrasting the human and industrial scales, each came into focus through an intriguing comparative tension. This was brought up even within the film where some of the workers you were filming were shown Poloroids of Ed's compositions and one of the workers commented, "This is a very broad view and you lose the detail." But you don't lose the detail. The detail is encoded in the breadth of view. Breadth itself becomes the detail.

Burtynsky: Right.

Baichwal: And the detail is there. If you look in close you see those stories happening. That's why for us we had to always move back and forth between macro and micro, between the wide view and the little detail of the woman's fingers as she's making the circuit breaker. Finding out her name made a huge difference. Just knowing her name—this faceless person, these hands making this circuit breaker—that's what happens when you encounter Ed's photographs. You start with the overwhelming scale and then look in closer to find the hundreds of narrative threads that are all inherently there. Teasing those out, finding those threads and following them, and then coming back to the wide view, and then going back in, the whole rhythm of the film is about going back and forth.

Guillén: Well, I wish I had more time to tease things out today with you two. My final query would be about your upcoming projects. I understand that you, Jennifer, are working on a film about lightning striking people? Another Maya tangent I might toss out is that when lightning hits the ground, it creates a glassy mineral, which the Maya would use as sacred eccentric flints; objects revered as holy.

Baichwal: Really? That's similar to Yoruba mythology where—when lightning strikes—stones are left and these stones are gathered, enshrined and worshipped. Really it's a film about the mystery of randomness. Using being struck by lightning as the arena for examining the intersections of randomness and meaning.

Guillén: When can we expect that film?

Baichwal: Probably next Fall. We'll start editing later this year and be done by the following September.

Guillén: And Ed? Yourself? Now that you've done this incredible work in China, are you focusing anywhere else?

Burtynsky: I'm doing a book wrapping up 15 years of shooting quarries. It's just going to be on quarries. Quarries are near and dear to my heart. My work almost slipped away on me. Between 1985 and when I opened my business in 1990, there's a gap there where I didn't really produce any personal work for a period of five years. I thought I was sunk as an artist because I couldn't ever get out of my own creation as a business; I thought it was just going to eat me alive. Then I was encouraged by some really key people to go out and back into the world. As he put it to me—it was in the kitchen at the business—"You will be doing a great disservice to yourself and the world if you stop making these pictures. You've got to keep making these pictures." He said, "What would you do if the business were off your back and you could just do whatever you wanted to do?" I immediately answered, "I would go and shoot quarries because they've been on my mind for the last four-five years." He said, "Do it. Just go do it. I'll buy 10 of the prints but you've got to make them. You've got to go out and make them."

Guillén: Excellent! Every artist should have such a friend.

Burtynsky: So he snapped me out of an insane period of my life where I was working seven days a week and fourteen hours a day, exhausted. I said, "Fine, I'm going to go make pictures." Then I started researching quarries and then it was that quarry series that really was the beginning of my larger acceptance into the world of art and my larger acceptance internationally as an artist. It was the beginning of the path towards an international presence and towards the ability to become totally self-sustaining as an artist.

Guillén: That's fascinating. Again, as a Mayanist, I would say that when I finally began to appreciate Mayan architecture was after I had finally visited a Mayan quarry. Actually I feel so blessed. I got to go to a quarry where there was a remaining chunk of limestone that had been carved in preparation for use as a stelae that was never removed from its bedrock; a true moment frozen in time. Anyways, we have to stop. I could talk to you two forever.

Burtynsky: Yeah, it was great. And actually great observations regarding the opening sequence. You really understood the authorship and that's one of the first times I've actually heard anybody say that and pick up on that.

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Jim Casper at Lens Culture offers a slideshow on Burtynsky's China with his audio interview with Burtynsky scored in a Parisian cafe:

Burtynsky's videotaped acceptance speech for the 2005 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize is likewise noteworthy, not the least for TED's assessment that what characterizes Burtynsky's photography is its jolie-laide.

Doug Cummings' Film Journey write-up from the Toronto International first intrigued my interest and Brian Darr's Greencine dispatch from Sundance confirmed it. Likewise Tyee's interview with Burtynsky enrichened my comprehension of the work. Another strong recommendation would be Felix Rebolledos's Offscreen essay on the film wherein he voices the disquieting concern on everyone's minds: "[B]y aesthetizing the imagery does one also anaesthetize it?" Rebolledos allows himself frequent analogies to the insect world; something that I—for some reason—felt compelled to stay away from; perhaps because, as Baichwal suggested, insects will undoubtedly survive far better than humans.

07/24/07 UPDATE: He was responsible for inspiring me to watch this documentary, and now Brian Darr follows through at Hell on Frisco Bay with his own insightful interview with Burtynsky and Baichwald.

08/03/07 UPDATE: Have finally caught up with Acquarello's burnished perspective of this film's "emblematic" usage "of th[e] self-exploitive cycle of construction through destruction." Acquarello's writing is always a pleasure to read.


Brian Darr said...

Fantastic interview. I'm so excited for people in the Bay Area to get a chance to see this film...

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Brian. Pat yourself on the back for encouraging me to catch the film. I understand through Chris Wiggum that you interviewed the two yourself? Looking forward to that on Hell on Frisco Bay; hopefully soon?