The Visual Language of Documentary Film: In Conversation with Jennifer Baichwal

Monday 05th, November 2018 / 16:35
by Amy Anderson

Dandora Landfill #3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016. Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary /  Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Canadian filmmaking trio Jennifer Baichwal, Nick de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky recently completed a trilogy of films that chronicle the results of human impact upon the planet. Their most recent film, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch identifies a new era in which human influence as the most dominant factor determining the earth’s form. The three travelled the world to document some of the earth’s largest sites of industrial resource extraction. Jennifer Baichwal speaks about some of the challenges and paradoxes of documentary filmmaking in our current social context.

A: I’ve been noticing that there seems to be a formal shift in documentary film away from an emphasis on spoken language. Cinematic images are starting to take precedence, while narration becomes deliberate, minimal, or absent altogether. I emphasize spoken language because I think that cinematic images might be starting to function as their own language in these works.

JB: That’s very interesting…I’m not sure. I would say that there’s as much of a trend in the direction of straightforward, dense, narrative storylines that are character driven. In that genre of documentary, the visual language is almost always subordinate in a way that I’ve always found puzzling because film is a visual medium. One of the most important things for me from the very beginning as a filmmaker is that visual language was not subordinate to text.

Even from the very beginning, in my first film and certainly the film about Paul Bowles, we were always grappling with the relationship of how the visual language works. In The Life of Paul Bowles we had these 100 foot roles of 16mm film, and we had an SD camera and a video camera for interviews. We basically did an almost 30 hour interview with Paul Bowles over the course of 10 days. But then we carried around this suitcase of 100 foot rolls and we had hardly any money, and a very limited amount of film. So we made this pact that before we ever turned on the camera to film something we’d say “is this a Bowles-ian moment?” In the end, we used almost everything that we shot in the final film.

The connection between the text and the images weren’t necessarily about what he was saying in the interview. You would have a scene in a market where somebody is being shaved with a straight razor. It’s a banal scene but through the lens of Bowles’ prose in some way it becomes a sinister act. It was the world of his prose, the way that he described the world. There’s this tension in that and it was not directly related or corresponding [to the film footage] at all. It was the visual approach of that film. It had an organic relationship to the ethos of what that film was about, which was [Bowles’] work.

I’ve been thinking about why it is so meaningful to emphasize visual language over text. I have a notion that we often have our most influential realizations when we’re out in the world, observing. Perhaps the closest you can get to simulating that experience cinematically is to place someone in front of a powerful image and allow them to experience it quietly.

JB: Absolutely. Especially in the work that we have done with Ed Burtynsky in Manufactured Landscapes, Watermark, and Anthropocene. The idea was always to create the possibility of an experiential understanding of where you were. I believe that the possibility for a kind of transformation of self or a shift in consciousness is much more likely to happen when you’re not told what to think about something. There is a very deliberate absence of the didactic or the polemic in these films. It allows viewers to come into these places they’re responsible for or connected to, but would never normally see, and actually feel what those places are like. It’s to create something that is experiential understanding for the viewer.

During a Q&A for Anthropocene, you talked about how it was very important when you’re on location to represent your intention honestly as a filmmaker. Otherwise the outcome of your work will not be authentic either.

JB: It’s really true. From an ethical standpoint, when you’re travelling around the world for films like these in particular there’s an inherent arrogance in thinking that you have the tools or the capacity to say something meaningful about this place that you are not of. I’m always extremely mindful of the humility that is required to be able to enter these contexts. You have to be open to receiving the truth of these places in some way. I use the word truth not in an objective sense, but I think that truth is the right word. It’s a truth that comes with all the edifices of what you bring, what your subject is bringing and what is happening on that particular day of the location. All of those layers and filters are there, but it’s still possible to convey and apprehend a kind of truth of that place. It’s about relinquishing control, not writing a script, and not expecting that the place that you’re in is going to deliver a certain set of images or experiences.

From a philosophical side, there has to be some kind of authentic exchange of vulnerability that happens between the filmmaker and the subject. It’s not a trick that you can just employ so that you can get on with what you want to do. It requires a real investment and a kind of trust. I don’t mean a trust where the person says “you can do whatever you want.” I mean a trust that goes back and forth. I think that when you’re exploiting someone, you can tell. Not just is it wrong ethically, but it rings false.

A: When I was watching Anthropocene I had a reaction on two levels: I was amazed at how beautiful so many of the images of these locations were, but I was also disturbed at my aesthetic reaction to these places that were the sites of so much human destruction. It was like looking at art—

JB: It’s one of the challenges that we get. There are two main criticisms of this work in particular. One of them is that we are that not hitting the subject hard enough given the urgency of the situation. That we should be telling people what to do and that’s the only reasonable way to convey information about the state of the planet right now, given the crisis that we’re in.

I have many friends who do engage in the urgent call to action, the activist based film. There’s a place for those, they can be very powerful when they work. But they’re almost always preaching to the choir, and people who disagree with that perspective are going to turn away. Not being polemic and didactic is a way of inviting a large constituency into considering these issues in a way that connects them to these places without judging or accusing them. Because, let’s face it; every single one of us is implicated. if we look around the world there are people who live on just the tiny slivers of our footprints as we live here in North America. We’re all part of this problem. Nobody is exempt except for the people at the receiving end of the populations that both you and I are a part of, that create these problems in the world.

The other argument that we get is that we are making something aesthetically pleasing out of things that are not, and that there is a falseness in that. I would argue that compelling is a better word than beautiful. If you are drawn into an experience because it’s intriguing or compelling, it creates a space for a longer contemplation. It’s the aesthetic engagement that creates that extended reflection. Burtynsky has gotten that critique throughout his whole career, of making the ugly beautiful. I would argue that the ambiguity, the paradox at the heart of that is what makes his work so powerful. It’s something we really try to explore in the film as well. There’s mystery in all of this too. Not every story is just about rapacious destruction, it’s about the complexity of existence and the way that we, as a species, engage with and use up all of these elements in the natural world that in themselves are kind of astonishing.

Anthropocene: the Human Epoch is now screening in select Canadian theatres. A travelling museum exhibition has also premiered at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The exhibition will then travel to MAST in Bologna in Spring 2019. For more information on Jennifer Baichwal’s work and the Anthropocene Project visit