Jennifer Baichwal and her team were in post-production on her new film Manufactured Landscapes right up until the day the film screened at this year’s festival. It was down-to-the-wire time well spent—Manufactured Landscapes is a stunning and original documentary that practically re-invents the “artist-at-work” film. More than a simple record of how Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky captures the changing face of the Chinese landscape, it also reproduces, on film, the actual experience of viewing Burtynsky’s work.
Jennifer, how did you first come to this project?
Edward Burtynsky: Actually, I can talk about that. A photographer named Jeff Powis was a customer at Image Works [Burtynsky’s lab in Toronto]. He saw my first venture to Bangladesh and said, “Hey, I love that work. I’m trying to do something other than still photography. I’ve got a video camera now and I’ve done a couple of little corporate things and a doc on archaeological digs in Belize. I’d love to work with you.” I thought it might be a really compelling piece. I mean, when you’re there, there’s so much going on that cannot be captured by a still photograph: these ships falling, these incredible sounds. The only conditions that I set down were that he had to travel by himself, he had to do his sound by himself and he couldn’t bug me or slow me down. And he had to pay his own way of course. So he started following me around. But it quickly became apparent that he really didn’t have enough knowledge. I mean, there’s a lot more to making a film than just recording a whole bunch of stuff on video. He was learning the hard way about the process. So we ran into problems. He’d been on four different locations with me and had over 100 hours of footage, but nowhere to go.
Jennifer Baichwal: So he came to me and Daniel Irons [who worked with Baichwal on Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles] and said, “Can you help me make this into a film?” After doing a film on Shelby Lee Adams, The True Meaning of Pictures, I didn’t want to make another film about a photographer. But there was something so intriguing about the forensic activity, of going into this footage. So I sat down with David Wharnsby, who has edited three of my films, and went through all the footage and realized a) how powerful a film it could be and b) that it wasn’t enough to make the film I would want to make. So I went to Ed and said, “What do you think of shooting more?” After that, it came together very quickly, which never happens in financing documentaries in Canada. It came together in about a month.
EB: A Canadian first.
JB: [laughs] Yeah, record time. That was TVO and the National Film Board. And Bravo did a bit. And then we got a grant from the Musagetes Foundation, which allowed us to shoot on Super 16mm—a big luxury. I didn’t want to do a traditional “artist-at- work” film. I thought that that would be really limiting. Also, the subject of Ed’s work is so powerful. I wanted to make a film that started with the work as a departure point for everything we see on film. So my job was to translate into motion picture film the experience of looking at his photographs, to extend those narrative streams that are inherent in the photographs.
At what point did Peter Mettler come on board as cinematographer?
JB: That was another lovely accident. Part of the reason the forensic experience of digging through the footage appealed to me was because I didn’t have to travel. I have two kids and they were really small at the time, so travel was difficult. When we realized that we would actually have to shoot more—that we wouldn’t just be working with existing footage— someone had to stay with the kids. Nick de Pencier, my partner, has shot all my other films. But in this case, he had to stay home. Peter Mettler had just shot a dance film that Nick had directed called Streetcar. Nick suggested that I get him, so I wrote to him in Switzerland. He wrote back saying, “That’s very interesting because Ed and I are old friends. We went to Ryerson together and know each other’s work very well.”
EB: We’d always talked about wanting to do something.
JB: Yeah, so he agreed and suddenly this great collaboration began. Just hours and hours of talking about how we’d translate Ed’s work into film. Ed was going to be given an award at the TED conference in February of 2005 in Monterrey and we went down to film it—that’s where the lecture footage is from. The drive down gave us all of this time to talk.
Ed, to what extent were you involved in these conversations?
EB: I put my feelings about what I’d like it to be out there. I pointed out Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness. I was more interested in the form than the content of what he was doing. But I loved the spare use of words and the way the music and images came together and lead the piece. The words are really just there to contextualise, to get you to think a certain way. The images then reinforce or build on those ideas. I’m not sure how much that influenced how it ended up, but I do remember talking about that. But no, I wasn’t really involved in the granular collaboration, the conversation about structure and all that. Besides, there was never anything that entrenched.
JB: We didn’t have a script. That’s how I always work. There’s a plan and then the plan can be abandoned at any moment if it has to be. But Ed really is the author of everything in the film, because all of our footage is extrapolated from his footage. We often start from the same frame. If not, we’re still trying to arrive, in film, at the same effect the photograph would have. The opening sequence, for example, aimed to show, in space and time, the scale of the place that he photographed. We always took the work as the departure point and tried to find the best way of teasing out those narratives.
EB: And there are some very clever ways that the film incorporated some other things that weren’t directly in my work. Like the Shanghai night club scene. I thought the voice-over about people being displaced perfectly offset the image of these young people—the new China.
JB: There were two big problems we faced in the film. The first was not blaming China. Not saying that the problem is over there, across the world. We needed to communicate all of our complicity in the problem. The other problem was romanticizing the old. When you go the old streets of Shanghai, there’s this organic life that’s so incredible. People have been living there for hundreds of years. These streets are being replaced by high-rises where all social networks are destroyed. Yet, at the same time, those old places don’t have real plumbing. Health-wise, people in the high-rises are much better off. We reached a point where we had to ask, you know, how much bombed-out, post-apocalyptic stuff will people sit through. We needed to see what was replacing the old. It was Peter’s idea to do that nightclub scene. I hated the idea. I hate those places: they’re noisy and smoky and it was near the end of the shoot and everyone was exhausted. I wondered where we could ever use it. But in retrospect, it’s crucial. It shows the new.
EB: As does the millionairess.
Yeah, how did you go about finding the millionairess, the real estate agent whose house you tour through?
JB: A guy named Richard Hughes, a British expat filmmaker in Shanghai, told us about her. We asked about what the new wealth looked like and he pointed at her.
EB: I’d actually done a series of portraits, trying to explore that same issue of what’s replacing the old. I’d paid Richard to research 10 people who really stood for the new China. And that millionairess was one. I’d done a portrait of
her with her daughter.
What happened to that portrait?
EB: I did a whole bunch. I thought I might have a chapter on “the new Chinese” in the book. At the end, I realized, if that was going to happen, I’d have to go back and do a lot more of it. Also, I wasn’t really sure that it fit in the book. I thought I’d just hold on to them.
JB: She was a very nice woman. She lives in a world I know nothing about.
EB: She makes great coffee.
JB: Oh yeah, she’s got the most amazing espresso machine. She made coffee for all of us. And her daughter is this incredibly sophisticated young girl. I didn’t give her the thesis of the film or anything, but she knew what we were doing. We didn’t trick her into thinking she was taking us on a tour of the house.
Aside from Herzog, were there any films you guys drew on as influences?
JB: I don’t really work like that. There are certainly filmmakers who I follow. Herzog is one of them. I’m also quite influenced by Chris Marke. There are a couple of Chris Marker moments in the film. The shot of that guy asleep on the hydrofoil, for example. That reminded me of Sans Soleil. And then where we used all the stills in the middle of the film when we were trying to do the coal distribution place and they won’t let us on: that was very much a La Jetée moment. What I did do for this film, and for the Shelby Lee Adams film, was look at a lot of films about photographers. Most of those influence me in the negative way, just because I was so sold on not doing the typical artist-at-work film. I just really wanted to avoid the clichés of that genre: you know, when you see the guy walking through the landscape and you know the whole thing’s is staged. Or the darkroom moment. I knew that, if we established Ed off the top as the author of the work and constantly came back to the photographs themselves, then we wouldn’t need to fall prey to that stuff. The other real guiding principle was this idea of moving from materials to production to transport to recycling; this whole cycle of goods and what we do with our resources. It’s like that story that you tell, Ed, about when you first came to Toronto and was looking at the high-rises. Can you tell that?
EB: Yeah, sure. I’d just moved to Toronto from St. Catherines. Having been outside the city and having seen where things come from, I couldn’t help but get this sense that there had to be an equivalent for the large banking towers out in the landscape somewhere.
JB: Some hole in the earth as deep as the high-rise.
EB: Exactly. I just thought, ‘We all understand this, the high-rise, but we don’t understand that place, the hole. That moment really lodged in my creative memory. It was looking at photography as a potential way to re-connect people with that place out in the landscape where materials originate. Up until very recently, we were all still connected to the landscape. But the big urban and transportational experience has disconnected us from it. You used to be able to say, “I know where my food comes from. Those tiles on my roof came from the quarry over there.”
JB: It’s like a hidden world now. That’s what became clear to me in China and what we were trying to show: those places we are all responsible for but never witness.