Walking along the beach in the cool, hazy early-morning Pacific light (by mid-afternoon the sun will be ablaze high in the sky, the temperatures approaching 90, the white sand burning) on our way to the Huntington Beach Pier, Burtynsky remarks, “This is the kind of light I like—even and subdued. People assume that photographers prefer bright light and well-defined shadows, but I prefer even light, because then you can capture a lot of detail. I like situations like now, where there basically aren’t any shadows.”
Burtynsky isn’t exactly known for spontaneous, seize-the-moment street photography; his images of Vermont quarries and the shipyards of China, of expanding deserts and blighted landscapes, for all their implicit political resonance, operate on the register of the sublime. Burtynsky is a formalist who intervenes in matters of political and moral significance, often from the removed perspective of a helicopter: he manages to make environmental devastation astonishingly beautiful and evocative. It can seem as though industry had obliterated the natural order for our viewing pleasure.
Burtynsky’s eye and mind are, however, always restlessly veering toward the big picture. “The Earth should not be called the Earth,” he proclaims as we walk out onto the pier, empty apart from a few fishermen with oily blood and scales–filled buckets casting lines out into the rolling surf. “Scientists think water came to Earth on a frozen comet, but eventually the world was completely covered in water. Life was created in water; life consists largely of water; life will not continue without enough water. The Earth should not be called ‘Earth’; it should be called ‘Water.’” Burtynsky has a relentless and disarming inquisitiveness, and the science of water is at his fingertips.
Baichwal, Burtynsky and Baichwal’s husband, cinematographer and producer Nick de Pencier, have travelled to every corner of the globe, from China to Mexico to California and northern British Columbia, shooting Watermark. Water is a complex, multifaceted, global issue, an issue at the heart of what Aristotle called “living being,” and the film, which is being released this fall, will be wildly ambitious, touching on every aspect of our relationship to water and our myriad uses of it, from massive hydroelectric dams in China to catching waves in southern California. Watermark will not be a film about the water crisis in the context of global warming, of which there are many; it will be a film about what water means to us.
The day after Burtynsky and I stroll out onto the Huntington Beach Pier, the four of us find ourselves in a press tent sponsored by Surf TV and its bleach-blond, beach-party staff. The beach swarms with the young and the beautiful, the boys shirtless and in tight swim trunks, the girls in bikinis that only nominally conceal their genitals, everyone tanned and hairless and tattooed and with thighs and abs that suggest hours every day in the gym. Baichwal had not originally intended to participate in the shoot; she thought she would let her two middle-aged male collaborators hang out with the hot young surfer girls for a few days. Nonetheless, after a few minutes on the beach, it becomes clear who is in charge. Dark and broad, her thick black hair tied up with a band and her eyes covered with wrap-around sunglasses, Baichwal leans back in a beach chair and provides directions in her steady, unflappable, calm voice, while de Pencier, decked out in shorts and a hat that makes him look like a colonial on safari, works the camera. Burtynsky’s style is eager and encyclopedic and optimistic, ideal for TED Talks; he distractedly wanders out among the surfer babes, supposedly location scouting. The surfers themselves are out in the water, the Zen masters of professional sports, gently bobbing, patiently waiting for the perfect wave. Baichwal is lost in thought.
After finishing her MA in theology at McGill University (she wrote her thesis on progressive Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr), Baichwal realized that she wanted to pursue a career outside academia that would “have a different kind of relevance.” After completing a short film on women and personal identity, Looking You in the Back of the Head (1995), she went on to make six increasingly acclaimed documentary features: Let It Come Down: The Life and Times of Paul Bowles (1998), The Holier It Gets (2000), The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (2002), Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Act of God (2009) and, most recently, Payback (2012). While much contemporary documentary filmmaking is polemical—Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) being the most famous examples—Baichwal’s work is decidedly different. “I’m just not a polemical kind of person,” she says. “I tend to see complexity. I think this comes from my philosophical background—I believe one can embrace complexity and sustain meditation.
“When I was in university, I ran away from school and my family to spend a year in Morocco,” she recalls. “I went to visit Paul Bowles in Tangier and ended up getting to know him. When, years later, I decided I wanted to make a documentary about him, I wrote him a letter, and he, incredibly, agreed to let me interview him at length. The result was Let It Come Down.” She continues, “It’s easy to lapse into a kind of National Geographic type of aesthetic, especially with the kind of material we had in Let It Come Down, so we decided to filter the entire film through the lens of his prose.” Among the remarkable achievements of Let It Come Down are the intense monologues delivered by the frail, elderly Bowles, shot with the camera focused tightly on his desiccated face as he reflects back on his childhood, on his years as a composer in New York, and on the early days in Tangier. But Baichwal’s approach is anything but starry-eyed. Bowles is portrayed as an inveterate expat who thrived on the moral and sexual licence of pre-independence Tangier, as someone whose temperament is chilly and analytical to the point of desolation, and at the same time as someone who remained devoted to the end to his brilliant and troubled wife, Jane.
The Holier It Gets is Baichwal’s most intimate film, and the only one in which she serves as the narrator—indeed, it is her only film that has a narrator. The film is the moving, occasionally funny, meditative travelogue of Baichwal, her two sisters and her brother (with de Pencier sheepishly behind the camera) on a quest to repatriate their father’s ashes to his native India. The trip takes them from sprawling, chaotic Mumbai to the banks of the Ganges to the Himalayas, from temple rites to harrowing rides on narrow mountain roads to days of driving rain, and the film’s hybrid style moves from intimate family scenes shot in grainy video to spectacular 16mm exterior shots of rivers and soaring, cloud-wreathed mountains. The film’s culminating and most powerful scene, in which Baichwal and her siblings pour their father’s ashes into a fast-moving Himalayan river, is shot from a distance with the sound on, and its effect is at once raw, private and dignified.
Baichwal continued her exploration of the nature of representation in a more explicit form in The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia. The film centres on Adams’s controversial photographs of family life deep in Appalachian hollers. Baichwal follows Adams up to dilapidated shacks where old-timers reminisce about their childhoods and play traditional songs; the film features a funeral and a church service where snake handlers’ poisonous vipers writhe over congregants’ bodies as they chant the miracles of their lord. This footage is interwoven with interviews with critics, sociologists and other photographers, who discuss whether Adams’s images romanticize and ultimately exploit the difficult lives of incredibly poor, uneducated people with little conception of how they will be perceived by audiences in places like New York and Toronto. “This is the only film we’ve made that we actually screened first for the subjects,” Baichwal says. “In the film, you make the arc from voyeurism to empathy. I felt like the sense of otherness of these people can be bridged, and that’s what we tried to do with the film. We can live in the space of that question. I think reality is too complex for real answers. What I do is meditate on the question.”
“I’m not so sure we bridged the otherness,” de Pencier admits, wincing. “There were people there who looked like they would have been happy to shoot us.”
Baichwal’s first three features are all beautifully made and intellectually nuanced, but to a significant extent the traditional conventions of documentary film, in which content supersedes formal approach, are scrupulously observed. Her real breakthrough came with her landmark 2006 film on the work of Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes. Shot by innovative Canadian documentary filmmaker Peter Mettler, director of Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002) and, most recently, The End of Time (2012), Manufactured Landscapes features a gorgeous opening sequence in which workers gather in an open square in China. The camera slowly dollies through a massive factory, the colours bright and hallucinatory, making it clear that this is a film driven by theme, and that the weight of it will be irreducibly visual.
“Manufactured Landscapes is a different kind of film than The True Meaning of Pictures,” remarks de Pencier, who was one of the film’s producers. “We didn’t try to do a biography of Ed—it’s an experiential film, and we put all of our energy into creating experiences of places that are important to us.” “It’s about thinking about landscapes,” Baichwal adds. “I wasn’t going to shoot scenes of Ed in the darkroom—I wanted to intelligently translate the world of Ed’s photographs into the world of film.” The moral complexity Baichwal embraced in her earlier films is at once embodied in the images of Manufactured Landscapes and handed over to the viewer: Burtynsky’s images of manmade devastation, the ruin of what some call the “Anthropocene,” are both sublimely beautiful and harrowing, and they are often so nearly abstract that it is difficult for the viewer to grasp their implications.
Manufactured Landscapes ultimately coheres because of Burtynsky’s distinctive visual sensibility, as interpreted by Baichwal and Mettler, but the aesthetic problem of holding together a thematic, reflective film becomes more difficult to resolve in Baichwal’s subsequent two movies—the broadly philosophical Act of God and Payback, about Margaret Atwood’s 2008 Massey Lecture and book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.
Act of God ruminates on chance and fate, and in particular on those whose lives have been either ended or transformed by lightning strikes, the ultimate, random expressions of the physical world’s terrifying power. “We took a scientific question and put it in a metaphysical perspective,” Baichwal points out. Meandering through stories of people struck by lightning while strolling in the woods, views of a hilltop shrine in Mexico where pilgrims were caught in a sudden storm, and reflections on the electrical nature of the brain, Act of God contains some of de Pencier’s most spectacular cinematography—there are spooky scenes of electrical storms blowing over Georgian Bay, the clouds blue-black and deep purple, the bolts of lightning phosphorescent white. And while Paul Auster’s dramatic reading of an autobiographical story about getting lost on a summer-camp hike during a furious thunderstorm—in which one of his friends is killed by a bolt of lightning—is one of the film’s highlights, Act of God struggles to transcend its diversity. One leaves it wanting some larger, illuminating statement about fate and chance; one almost wants a bigger narrator, of the kind that dominates Werner Herzog’s documentaries. Baichwal is of course aware of this problem. “I don’t narrate my films,” she said, humbly, “because, unlike Werner Herzog, no one really cares what I personally have to say.”
“In Manufactured Landscapes, Ed was not as involved as he is with Watermark,” Baichwal says. “But he was intrigued, and Ed is one of those people who is curious about everything, and for that reason being around him is elevating. The project really started when we were shooting the oil spill with him in the gulf for Payback—Ed was already in the second year of a project on water, so at that moment our interests dovetailed.”
“For Ed, it’s always been about the visual,” de Pencier adds, “which is of course a joy for me. It starts with the visual, but then his research on the locations of his shoots is very advanced.” “We have complementary skills,” Baichwal chimes in. “Ed can wait all day for the perfect view and the perfect light, while Nick and I can wait all day in a rice paddy waiting to meet the right people and end up going home with them to have dinner and talk.”
One morning in Burtynsky’s elegant Toronto studio last November, de Pencier was setting up a camera over a long worktable, on which Marcus Schubert, Burtynsky’s director of media, publications and exhibits, was arranging prints that might end up in the book—and exhibitions—that will be the culmination of the still-photography part of Burtynsky’s water project. (The book will be launched in September.) Shot from helicopters, eerie and always beautiful, the images show desolate, distressed landscapes from Spain to southern California to the Sea of Cortes in Mexico. “I’m not going to overstate what has to be done, because then it will seem fake,” Baichwal firmly announced. “But you have to go through each chapter of the book, starting with distressed landscapes, and lay it out.”
“And now you have to forget what Jennifer just said, and forget me,” de Pencier said, already set up behind the camera. While de Pencier methodically panned over the prints on the table, Burtynsky and Schubert discussed the images in scrupulous detail: the rumpled expanses of desert, pools of bright-red water on a shrimp farm, the strange, growing crystal formations. “These sometimes look like images of the cosmos,” Burtynsky remarked. “These are 1,000 miles of desert that weren’t what nature intended, so it clearly counts as a distressed landscape.” While Schubert and Burtynsky obsessed over micro-details in the images (they are both serious photography nerds), Baichwal tried to bring everyone back to the central issue: “How do you connect the distressed landscapes to the cause of the distressed landscapes?”
Burtynsky’s book will be a wide-ranging look at water and our relationship to it, and it needs to add up to something more than the sum of its parts. And while film is a linear, time-driven medium that builds to a conclusion—books and exhibitions of still photographs invite jumping forward and backward in ways that film does not—the same will have to be true of Watermark.
Baichwal works closely with her long-time editor, Roland Schlimme, as her films evolve. As of last winter, the shooting was nearly complete—the team was scheduled to go Allahabad, India, to film the Purna Kumbh Mela festival, and was entertaining the idea of going to the radioactive Lake Karachay in the Ural Mountains in Russia (the shoot would involve hazmat suits—de Pencier insisted he would do it only if non-Russian scientists said it would be safe)—but the footage, while often stunning, remained fairly amorphous. “A lot of the work happens as we go along—we don’t start out with a rigid script,” Baichwal says. “I was on one of my long walks last night and it suddenly struck me that we should use the sequences at the Colorado River Delta as a kind of prologue, and then do something else—I like setting rules and then breaking them.” Many of the scenes in Watermark are, literally, dizzying, like the night shots of the construction site of the staggering Xiluodu Dam on the Yangtze River in China (it will hold six times the capacity of the Hoover Dam), where workers scramble up 300-metre bamboo ladders, the turbines satanic in scale. There are also more personal, melancholic scenes, like that of an old Native woman in the blasted Colorado River Delta, who remembers the time, some 40 years earlier, when there was a thriving fishing industry.
When I ask Baichwal how she is going to hold all of this footage together in a single film, she goes uncharacteristically silent. The wry de Pencier immediately quips, “That’s Jen’s least favourite question.”
While Payback homed in on a philosophical concept troublingly fundamental to human relationships, Watermark addresses an issue that is primordial and metaphysical. Burtynsky was right: Earth, at least as we understand it, should not be called Earth; it should be called Water. Water is where life was born. Water, flowing, transforming, unpredictable, absorptive, mirroring, is our most powerful image both of consciousness and of time. Heraclitus’s great epigram was about the flow of rivers. In The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson argues that our love of living in homes with views of bodies of water was shaped early on, by natural selection.
That said, on the last day of the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, the waves are small and leaden. I attend a poolside breakfast at the Hyatt Regency, where hungover surfers drink Bloody Marys to the Beach Boys’ aching “love is here today, and it’s gone tomorrow.…” The announcer tries to make each wave, each ride, seem life-changing, but it’s unclear whether anyone is convinced. And then, suddenly, a chopper containing Baichwal and Burtynsky swoops in out of nowhere and loudly, somewhat menacingly, circles over the scene. It’s easy enough to imagine the crew contemplating Australian champion Julian Wilson cutting up a foaming break just feet from the pier’s concrete pylons, and the endless expanse of water whose swift forward edge he’s riding.
The original version of this article appears in the Summer 2013 issue of Canadian Art, which is on newsstands now. To read more from this issue, check out its online table of contents, or subscribe or buy an issue on the App Store or Zinio.