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Jennifer Baichwal

Director, Writer, Producer
(b. 1963  Montreal, Quebec)

Jennifer Baichwal was born in Montreal and grew up in Victoria, B.C.  She attended McGill University and received a Master of Arts in Religious Studies.  From the beginning of her career, Baichwal has oscillated between two different areas of interest. On the one hand, she has created insightful portraits of artists with an emphasis on the ethical contradictions in their work. On the other, she has made expansive films about the larger dilemmas facing humanity, often with a decidedly global scope. In her most recent work, particularly her collaborations with photographer Edward Burtynsky, these two subjects have merged. In both Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark, the near surreal beauty of Burtynsky’s images contrast starkly with their content, which usually document the destruction of our natural environment.

Her first film, Looking You In The Back of the Head (1997) dealt with issues of identity.  Baichwal asked thirteen women to describe themselves, and --through a series of monologues and metaphoric imagery -- the film explored how they defined themselves.

In 1998, Baichwal completed her first feature documentary, Let it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, which garnered her an International Emmy Award for Best Arts Documentary.  Baichwal crafted an intimate portrait of the reclusive American writer, and the fifty years he spent in Tangier, Morocco.  The film also featured William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.  Her next film, The Holier It Gets (1999) documented Baichwal’s personal journey as she embarked with her three siblings (along with her father's ashes), to the wellspring of the Ganges River.  The documentary garnered a number of awards including Best Biography at Hot Docs – and was nominated for the Best feature Documentary Genie Award.    

In 2002, Baichwal examined the work of photographer Shelby Lee Adams in a feature length documentary entitled The True Meaning of Pictures (2002).  For over thirty years, Shelby Lee Adams focused on remote pockets of the Appalachian mountains and the lives of those who inhabit the rural area.  Baichwal followed and examined the controversial photographer on his visits back to the region.  With the aid of Adams' photos and his archive of personal videos, Baichwal documented not only the economic horrors of the Appalachian area and the conditions of those living in isolation, but she also presented arguments of both Adams' supporters and detractors.  By using poverty and its shock-value as well as dramatic lighting and his often-controversial staging of shots, Adams is accused by some in the film of proliferating hillbilly stereotypes while also distorting the image of Kentucky.  In the end, Adams declared that his pictures were not necessarily objective in their approach but that they were the result of how he subjectively immersed himself with the locals and their customs. Very conscious of the representation issue, Baichwal showed the film to those who were depicted in it (with the exception of Adams, who was a public figure) before locking picture and completing the editing process.

In 2003-2004, Baichwal and Nick de Pencier were commissioned to compile a retrospective on artists in a series entitled Ontario Arts Council 40th Anniversary Profiles (2004).  In what amounted to 40 short films, the two minute segments featured artists who received grants and support from the Ontario Arts Council in its forty-year history.  Among the artists that were featured in the series include, Michael Ondaatje, Judith Thompson and Michael Snow.

For her next documentary feature, Baichwal would pair up again with producer Nick de Pencier to create the award winning film, Manufactured Landscapes (2006).  The film's fascinating and often breathtaking imagery was framed by cinematographer and noted director Peter Mettler.  In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal again filmed the work and practice of an acclaimed photographer.  In following Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, Baichwal not only documented Burtynsky's approach to photographing some of the world's most visually stunning industrialized areas, but also captured the new economic realities of China.  Baichwal’s portrait of China's industrialization efforts, including Mao Tse Tung's much-discussed Three Gorges Dam project, mirrors the same sobering and melancholic narratives of a Burtynsky image.  Among many of the film's visually stunning sequences, the most memorable and talked about is the film's opening shot.  Tracking alongside the interior of a Chinese factory, Baichwal gracefully exposed the seemingly endless rows of labourers at their workstations.  The opening is a kind of visual prologue for the rest of the film, as Baichwal took on the role of documenting both the artist-photographer and the greater theme of a rapidly changing Chinese landscape, its environmental absurdities and the complicated ambitions of its industrialized agenda.  The film won a Genie award for Best Documentary,  was given the Best Canadian Feature Film award at the Toronto International Film Festival, made Canada’s Top Ten list, was named the best Canadian film of the year by the Toronto Film Critics Association – and was a financial and critical success throughout North America. The film was sold in numerous other territories and was universally well received.

Act of God (2009) examines the lives of those affected by lightning.  There are seven stories in all from around the world including that of novelist Paul Auster who was struck as a teenager.  Interested in the philosophical nature of random events, Baichwal explores chance and the hidden meanings it might hold.

An adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s meditations on debt (moral as well as monetary), Payback (2012) was an adventurous and complex translation of the author’s work, using visual metaphors to tease out the subtleties and the implications of Atwood’s argument and oscillating between Atwood delivering lectures to farmers embroiled in a long-running feud to magnate and former inmate Conrad Black, who discusses the lack of rights afforded prisoners. (Payback began as part of the Massey lectures, a series of talks delivered in different cities across Canada and broadcast on the CBC.)      

In 2013, Baichwal, Burtynsky and de Pencier released Watermark, an often harrowing account of how we use and abuse the most vital natural resource on the planet. This time out, Burtysnky and Baichwal share the director’s credit. The film was named one of Canada’s Top Ten films – and won the best Canadian film prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Additional notes by Steve Gravestock

Film and video work includes

Looking You In The Back of the Head (1997)
Let it Come Down:The Life of Paul Bowles, 1998 (director, producer)
The Holier It Gets, 1999 (director, producer)
The True Meaning of Pictures, 2002 (director, producer)
Ontario Arts Council 40th Anniversary Profiles, 2004 (co-director, producer)
Manufactured Landscapes, 2006 (director, producer)
Act of God, 2009 (director, producer)
Payback, 2012 (director, writer)
Watermark, 2013 (co-director)

By: Mark Jewusiak