Exploring questions with no easy answer.

jennifer baichwal

ReelGood were recently lucky enough to check out Jennifer Baichwal’s brand new documentary Watermark at ACMI recently. You can read out review here. We were even luckier when ACMI helped organise an interview with the internationally renowned documentary. We talked to Jennifer about Watermark, he experiences with collaborative directing and the intricate relationship humans have with water.

What draws you to the medium of cinema and in particular the medium of documentary filmmaking?

Well, I started of as an academic. I did a Masters degree in philosophy and theology and I was kind of chasing the narrowness of the medium of inquiry, you know, like writing a paper. The academic world is influential, but it’s kind of an ivory tower. I was thinking about what would be a more interesting medium to explore some of these questions and that’s how I turned to documentary film, because I think that putting images and text, for lack of a better word, together in a time-based medium can be extremely powerful. I think it can move you emotionally and viscerally as well as intellectually, and so I started by making films. I was self taught and once I started doing it and once I did I realised I found something pretty incredible, and documentary for me, I’m so interested in what’s happening in the world. I don’t have the desire to make up a story. I want to go to places where real things are happening. I want to explore them and then bring them to other people.

What area of filmmaking do you find the most compelling?

Our films take a long time. They take about three to five years to make, so they’re big projects and the research period is quite long and the production period is long. In Watermark, we were in ten different countries, so we were all over the world but I think for me the most compelling aspect is editing, because we don’t work with scripts in the sense that I never try to predict what’s going to happen before it’s happened. So, when we go into an environment or a context or a place we really try to understand what this place is really about and then find a way of conveying it to the viewer without disrupting the place too much, while still respecting the people who are part of that context. I would say, especially when you do a lot of international work, your ethical approach is very important. You can’t just parachute in and start telling people what to do. Because we don’t work with a script our edit periods are quite long and our shooting ratios are quite high. This film was 180:1 in terms of hours of footage shot and I edited it for a year, It feels to me like the puzzle of putting all these pieces together and the stories emerging slowly through this long process to becoming what it is meant to be, I find this very satisfying.

You’ve focused on a fairly wide variety of subjects for your films, from lightening strikes to the culture of consumption in Western society. After Payback, what made you decide to focus your next film on the interaction between humanity and water?

On the one hand, I made a film about Burtynsky’s work, which was actually released in Australia, called Manufactured Landscapes, which was about the industrial revolution in China. That film, very surprisingly to us, played all over the world and won a lot of awards and had a real impact. I started to try to think about why it had the impact that it did and I think it was because it was an environmental film but it wasn’t a preachy environmental film. It wasn’t a film that was filled with talking heads telling you what to think about something or preaching doom and gloom. It was just taking you to places you were responsible for but would never normally see – the factories that make the things we use every day – and somehow just by experiencing these places was enough to cause a shift in consciousness for many people.

So, Burtynsky and I talked about working together again and when we were looking at subjects, I mean, water is such a massive subject and he was doing a photographic essay for National Geographic on water in California. California has incredibly complex water access because the State is practically a desert. It has very little water of its own. All of its water is negotiated, and comes in from other states. It was the California work and also when he was photographing Australia and learned about the drought there that we both started thinking about water as a subject and how its a substance that’s very easy to take for granted in a country like Canada where we have massive amounts of fresh water. But it’s necessary for life more than anything else other than air. Because of that, we decided to take it on. We knew we couldn’t be comprehensive because it’s such a big subject but all of the stories are iconic in some way or representative of a particular kind of interaction with water.

We tried to find the most visually compelling stories and also the ones that connected us in some way. So the industrial water story is the tanneries in Bangladesh and you know, you think why would you go to the ends of the earth to a tannery that looks like its emerging from the Medieval ages. These places are like they were in Medieval times and that is because, what’s interesting about these places, is there’s no regulation on the chemicals that leaves these tanneries and goes out into the main waterways of the city. But 90% of that leather is for export, so it’s coming to you, it’s coming to Canada, it’s coming to Europe, it’s coming to the U.S. So we are responsible for those places. And the Imperial Valley is a place we explored in California. It’s a massive desert that has been terraformed into rich hydra-cultural land solely because of the Colorado River. The water from the Colorado River is the only thing that keeps the massive Imperial Valley from being a desert. What’s interesting is that I live in Canada, where the winters are very cold, and I can still eat little baby lettuces in the middle of winter and that lettuce comes from the Imperial Valley and is irrigated by the water from the Colorado River. So I am connected to that place, and I’m connected to the fact that the river has not reached its delta in forty years, because so much water is taken off for these kind of uses. We were trying to chase these connections.


Were the locations chosen collaboratively or was Edward Burtynsky the driving force behind choosing the locations?

We chose them together. We had a huge wall of a hundred places, represented by photographs, that we slowly whittled down to the ones that ended up being in the film and maybe about ten more. There were some that got away. It took us a year of research to figure out what were the stories that you could know all you needed to know in one line. All you needed to know about the Xiluodu Dam, which was the dam we filmed in Northern China, is that it’s six times bigger than the Hoover Dam. So imagine the Hoover, times six. That’s how big this place was. And it was just overwhelming. But that’s the level we interfere with the direction of water. That’s the level at which we direct water to our needs.

How did you and Edward Burtynsky originally decide to collaborate and what about that partnership compelled you to work again on Watermark?

In Manufactured Landscapes, it was me as a filmmaker with my producing partner and partner in life Nick de Pencier as the producer (and who was the cinematographer on Watermark). But we decided to make this film and in some ways our approach to filmmaking and Burtynsky’s approach to photography were very similar in terms of being non-didactic, non-argumentative, relatively complex but also allowing the viewer to make up their own minds about what they were looking at. Because that went so well and Ed was intrigued by film, we decided to do this together as co-directors and it really was a project that, the three of us, because it was such a visual film we had every kind of possible camera technology employed to get the kind of vantage points that we did and to get the resolution we needed. So we had remote helicopters in China, we had real helicopters, we had lifts and poles and you know, hanging from the side of a cliff kind of thing to get the shot. And often we’d be in a helicopter and I would be directing the Cineflix operator, or Nick was, and Ed would be hanging out the window with a harness on taking photographs. It was very collaborative, all the way through, and was a really rewarding experience because we all sort of brought out the best in each other.

In Watermark, there’s never a concrete message conveyed, as if you’re exploring a question but leaving the answer up to the audience. Was this a conscious thing?

It was completely conscious, and I’m telling you there are some audiences that find that difficult. In the United States for example, which I guess you could call a polarised society between left and right, people kind of want to hear your pitch. They want to hear your argument. They say ‘give me your best shot, give me your best argument and I’ll agree or disagree with you.’ And then in some places, the lack of comment is the most appealing thing to the audience. I think that when you make a traditional journalistic documentary à la Michael Moore, there are very strong arguments and he doesn’t give any thought about trying to represent the other side at all. That can be very powerful but let’s say its reductive. It’s one sided, and I feel that to make an experiential approach, where people get to be in places and absorb them and kind of think about them themselves. When you’re in the tannery in Bangladesh you see the chemicals leaving the tannery and going into the main river, and you know that you’ve probably bought leather that was probably made in one of these tanneries. And then you see a father washing his son’s face in the river and it’s hard not to be moved by that. But, if there were just talking heads sitting there reeling off all the chemicals that are going into that river it wouldn’t have the same impact. I believe it’s a more complex conversation that draws the viewer in to not make a specific argument. I also think that environmental films and environmental arguments really failed in the 70s to move people because it was so radical. We all have to move back to the country and become organic farmers and make our own clothes and everything. Well, people aren’t going to do that. We have a huge problem obviously, but the answer is not simple, the answer is complicated. We haven’t got it yet, because it is complicated, so let’s acknowledge how complicated it is instead of trying to come up with an easy solution. There is none.

There seems to be a greater emphasis on image over exposition in WatermarkSometimes I found myself not being able to concentrate on what was being said because I was so absorbed in the imagery. How did the cinematography work? Who shot what? 

Nick shot almost everything, and Ed did the stills at the same time and Ed and I directed. We all kind of collaborated on what was the best way too approach different places that we were in. The cameras we were using were the RED Epic cameras, which were were shooting in 5k. It was a hand assembled prototype, they had not come out onto the market yet. So Nick got one of the first ones and was trying to figure out how to use it but also finding ways to make it work. As I said, we really went to great lengths to try to show the scale, because you can’t really understand water unless you see it from above. You can’t understand a watershed unless you look at it from above and see how pervasive it is in the landscape and how diverse it is, from rivers to bogs to lakes to oceans to mountaintops with ice and snow. All of these things are part of a watershed. We wanted to show the scale of that but it also became important to then connect that to the tiny details of individual lives of people living in these environments so that you get to hear their story about the world that they’re living in, again instead of getting some person to tell you what to think or giving you a lot of facts. We worked very hard on the visual languages in the film and the way it was edited. These stories, kind of flowing from one to another, was meant to feel like a river. It was kind of like being immersed in a river and getting moved along the river to the end.

jennifer baichwal

You’ve managed to get access to some pretty amazing places in Watermark. Were there any difficulties you had travelling or convincing officials to allow you to shoot?

All the time. In China we had incredible access to the dam because the dam was made by the same people who made the Three Gorges Dam that we had filmed at before and Ed has had a ten year relationship with this corporation, photographing their dam sites. So they let us go there, but once we got there it took two hours to get down onto the construction site of the dam, holding all of our equipment, climbing down extremely rickety ladders with six hundred foot drops below us. And then you think about how there are thousands of people working here, day and night, doing exactly the same thing. The locations were arduous and the officials questioned us in China, but less so than in Manufactured Landscapes, where we couldn’t turn the camera on without five people coming over and arguing with us or asking us what we were doing. We had a lot more freedom this time but just because some of our locations were either extremely remote or kind of arduous in terms of what they were, it was a tough shoot.

What’s on for the horizon?

Ed and I have been travelling a bit with the film. We just did the U.S. release and we were together every weekend going to different cities and we made a pact that we wouldn’t talk about future projects so then we could just forget about it and get away from ourselves to start planning the next film and I’m really trying to take a sabbatical now and think a lot about what is the logical next step. It feels like the films keep getting bigger and bigger in terms of scale. Watermark is a fairly epic project and you can’t lose sight of small stories either, so I’m thinking about maybe I’ll have to make a couple of really short, small films in between.

Do you have any advice for young filmmakers?

There is no one way to make a documentary and there is nobody who can really tell you how to make a documentary. So if you’re thinking about going to school, school is useful for peers, for access to equipment and for mentors who you respect and who can guide you. I’ve taught courses where I still have students who I’m in touch with, advising them, looking at their cuts, working with them. I still have that relationship with people who particularly appreciated our approach to filmmaking. The way to learn it is just to go out and do it any way you can and once you get a kind of response to your work then you can negotiate funding so that you can start actually getting paid for what you do. It’s not a lucrative business at all but you can support yourself by doing a bunch of different things. Nick often shoots for other people. I would say in terms of approach for me, the most important thing is having an ethical relationship with my surroundings or my subjects because I feel that if you don’t respect those issues that come up when you are literally shoving a camera in someones face, it can be considered an act of aggression. And people can tell if you’re exploiting that relationship. In my mind you have to have an authentic relationship with the place of the people, and that involves giving up quite a bit of yourself.

Watermark is playing at ACMI through the first half of July. Head here for more information.

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