Baichwal talks BUFS’s feature film, Manufactured Landscapes

Manufactured Landscapes, a powerful and compelling portrait of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, screens on Nov. 19 as part of the Brock University Film Society’s (BUFS) Sunday night movies.
Burtynsky, a St. Catharines native, will be returning home to attend the screening as well as provide a question and answer session before the show.
Not at all a straightforward biography, Manufactured Landscapes focuses on the photos rather than the man, in addition to framing this aesthetic appeal against a backdrop of globalization, the industrial revolution and other politically progressive concerns, including the world being overwrought with consumption.
The success of this documentary has been astounding, grabbing the top Canadian honour at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and opening many people’s eyes to the devastation of the earth.
Director Jennifer Baichwal suggests that making a good documentary has as much to do with the presentation of a story as it does the actual subject matter.
“It really is at the most fundamental level a combination of form and content working together,” said Baichwal.
“If you have a great story but you don’t know how to tell that story, it’s not going to come across. The way you tell it is as important as the story itself. On the other hand, if you have a flashy, sort of seductive style, something that works well formally, but you have no story, that’s not going to work either. It’s really about finding the right way to tell the story that you are trying to tell.”
Baichwal chooses stories that offer her an initial understanding and emotional connection, but also allow the plot to grow through production.
“Documentary requires you to be in this very strange place where you have to have a plan all the time, but you have to be ready to abandon that plan at any second when things go in another direction, because reality is unpredictable,” said Baichwal.
Burtynsky, who specializes in large-scale studies of industrial landscapes, stars in a film that is a decided mix of art and environmentalism. The film tends to obscure Burtynsky as the dominant ‘subject’ of the film, choosing instead to inform and enlighten using his work as an outlet for understanding.
“I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to make a film that proceeded from Ed’s photographs rather than a film about Ed or about Ed as an artist,” said Baichwal. “I was drawn to Burtynsky’s photographs because they have this capacity to change consciousness in a non-didactic way and they let you witness the places that we are all responsible for but never really see – the recycling yards, the mines, the factories that make the things that we all think that we need to buy. Once you witness those places, I think your consciousness about your own behaviour and the cycle of consumption and waste that we all engage in really begins to change.”
Baichwal suggests that Burtynsky’s work is captivating, to say the least, but it is not preaching at one to change their ways. More subtly, his art presents a new way of looking at the world that may inspire one to live more consciously.
“You can get overwhelmed by the beauty of looking at something that looks like an abstract swirl of colour and then you can look in closer and realize that you’re looking at densified oil filters.”
Baichwal described that her experience in producing the film led to her own revelations on how severe environmental degradation has become in North America. Entering the film as an environmentalist already, Baichwal realized that she did not fully understand the magnitude of where this neglect of nature has left the world.
“The film is about the industrial revolution in China but it’s not really about that, it’s about our implication, the West’s implication in that Industrial Revolution, and it’s about the Industrial Revolution as an archetype for what has happened everywhere,” said Baichwal. “The film was never meant to be about what China is doing is bad. They’re doing what everybody else has done – industrialize now, get money, clean up later, which has been the model of every industrial revolution that has happened so far on the planet.”
Baichwal suggests that it is the speed and geographical magnitude with which China is revolutionizing that is creating such an impact, one that we might not have the luxury of cleaning up later.
“When I go into a store and buy something now, I look at where it’s made,” said Baichwal. “[Most of the time] that little label, ‘Made in China,’ is on it and I go back to those factories and think, do they really need this, do I really need this? Is it realistic to expect that somebody can make a T-shirt for four bucks? No, it’s not.”
As Baichwal described, the actual costs (transportation, environmental degradation and labour) are not internalized, but rather externalized in a way that is unfair. She suggests that it is a collective consciousness and daily awareness that needs to take a dramatic shift in society.
“The dollar store toy that gets bought and is broken in half an hour, and then thrown in the garbage, and then finds its way back to China to be recycled into another plastic dollar store toy – there is an absurdity and a tragedy in that. The full weight of that did not fall on me until I was in these places,” said Baichwal.
Baichwal will continue to work on thought-provoking documentaries, suggesting that she finds so many things in the real world fascinating that she has no interest in creating fictional plots. One of Baichwal’s next productions will focus on the industrialization of food.
Manufactures Landscapes will screen on Nov. 19 in the David S. Howes Theatre. For tickets, prices and more information on future Brock University Film Society’s screenings, visit http://www.brocku.ca/cpcf/ and click on ‘links’.

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