‘Have a Plan, But Be Ready to Abandon It’: ‘Into the Weeds Director Jennifer Baichwal Discusses Career

Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal was “excited and happy” to pick up an award at Ji.hlava Documentary Film Festival for “Into the Weeds: Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson vs. Monsanto Company.”

Johnson, who developed a deadly form of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, took Monsanto to trial, alleging it failed to warn about cancer risks with its Roundup herbicide.

“I love this festival and I have never been able to come in person, because I have children. Now, they have grown up and they don’t care what I do,” she said on Saturday, praising other nominees in the Testimonies section.

Earlier during the week, Montréal-born Baichwal discussed her decades-spanning career during a masterclass moderated by Ji.hlava’s chief Marek Hovorka. She started with her 1999 doc “The Holier It Gets,” about her father’s wishes to have his ashes scattered at the source of the Ganges.

“If you want to know anything about my family, that’s the film to watch. And it’s deeply embarrassing for that exact reason,” she said, admitting it gave her a chance to explore the problems of confessional work.

“Many of my students immediately go to personal stories. But just because it happened to you, doesn’t mean other people will find it interesting.”

“I didn’t show the film to [my siblings] before it was finished. I knew I would get all kinds of ‘you can’t use that, I look fat!’ What I learnt is this dialectic of scale and detail. The big picture only has meaning when you are connecting it to something extremely particular.”

The other thing she learned was that things don’t go according to plan.

“Have a plan, but be ready to abandon it. If you don’t follow what is happening, you are doing a disservice to the context and to the people,” she said.

“We have a line at the bottom of every film that says: ‘It was shot and edited without a traditional script.’ It’s an ethical issue as well, because who am I to say I have any idea of how to convey, say, the city of Norilsk? It comes from the practice of deliberate humility.”

Baichwal said that the sense of not belonging anywhere as a child has influenced her work: “My Indian family thought we were weird. My British family basically disowned my mother for marrying my father.”

But while she doesn’t believe in the objective truth in a documentary – “it’s bullshit” – you can still be truthful.

“It involves empathy, even for the people you disagree with, a real exchange of vulnerability and knowledge. You don’t necessarily become friends, it’s more [about] trust and intimacy. And that goes both ways.”

Baichwal also talked about working with husband Nicholas de Pencier and photographer Edward Burtynsky, with whom she realized “Manufactured Landscapes,” “Watermark” and “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch.”

Discussing the opening eight-minute tracking shot of a Chinese factory in 2006 “Manufactured Landscapes,” she said: “We got so much flak for that sequence from our broadcasters. You go from being somewhat interested to being bored and angry. ‘When is this bloody scene going to end?’ But you come out of it with a recognition of scale.”

As pointed out by Hovorka, the film’s ending turned out to be equally haunting.

“There was nothing natural. No birds, no trees, no insects. The ground we were standing on, I don’t know what that was. And the terrible thing was, people were living there. This wasn’t some industrial wasteland,” she explained.

“The reason why I wanted to put it at the end was because it was a revelation for me. We are all going to end up like this if we don’t change the way we live.”

Shooting in China proved problematic, with a minder accompanying the crew.

“When I was arguing with him about whether we could shoot something, [cinematographer] Peter Mettler would be already filming. I feel sorry about it, but not too much.”

On the last day, they managed to interview people protesting against relocation.

“We got chased by the police. They wanted to take our footage, which we deliberately did not process there. We just managed to get out of the country,” she said, also recounting their experiences in the closed city of Norilsk, Russia, when filming “Anthropocene.”

“Two days in we got arrested. They claimed we came under false pretenses and tried to get us to sign a confession that we had lied. They kept harassing us for the entire shoot.”

“To China and Russia, we probably can’t come back.”

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