by Walter Chaw|April 12, 2004|With just two feature-length documentaries under her belt, Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles and The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia, Toronto-based filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal has already established herself as among the most thoughtful, inquisitive artists in a genre finally hitting its stride. The questions she asks about the exploitation, reality, and evasiveness of truth are, in a way, the only ones that matter. Governed by a clarity of philosophy that includes a sharp self-regard of her role as filmmaker, her first two films deal with artists whose work has become the loci for fierce socio-political/existential debate, while her new project is something she describes as a departure: "political." The imagination shudders even as anticipation builds.
After recommending The True Meaning of Pictures to anyone who'll listen for the past five months, I was surprised to find out it had already been delivered to the home video market via Docurama, a distributor that has fast established itself as an important voice in the documentary new wave. Surprised and dismayed, truth be told, as I would like to have included the picture on my top ten list for last year. Yet the freshness of its release to the DVD market is a boon not only for folks who may have missed it during its limited festival run, but also FILM FREAK CENTRAL, as it afforded us the chance to chat with Ms. Baichwal from her home in Canada.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: What happened to the distribution of The True Meaning of Pictures?
JENNIFER BAICHWAL: Well, it's a difficult film. After its premiere at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, it made its way to Sundance and there was a chance that it was going to go to PBS--there were negotiations for that, but in the end they pulled out. I think that because of the controversial subject matter and the issue that by extension, as filmmakers, we can be accused of doing all the same things that Shelby [Lee Adams] is doing by showing his photographs. It's a tough film. It's been going around festivals, showing in a few cinematheques, but just not getting the wide release like our Paul Bowles film did. So our distributor made a deal with Docurama, which is fine, but it would have been nice had it gotten wider play.
You mention the implication of "doing all the same things"--are you talking about the charges of exploitation?
I'm afraid so.
Overused and misunderstood terms, I find, in regards to the documentary format: exploitation and voyeurism.
(laughs) Exactly, although by way of response to some of those charges, I do think that there is a way of proceeding in a situation like that where you are aware of all of the issues involved rather than being oblivious to them. I think if you're oblivious to them, you're in danger just in that naïve stance of being guilty of some kind of exploitation. Because we use a lot of archival footage, Shelby's archival footage, there was sort of a back-and-forth between the way we shot and the way that he shot. I think that our intention was to be a little more distant and a little more respectful of the subject as outsiders in the footage that we shot because it was important to preserve that contrast between him and us. He was fully in their face, in their intimate situations, and we wanted to be more circumspect.
Were you afraid of a loss of, to use another overused/misunderstood term, objectivity?
Well, we made the film because I went to an exhibition of Shelby's photographs and they immediately brought up all these problems of representation to me--the whole overused idea of voyeurism--but there was definitely a kind of voyeuristic experience of me, the viewer, in a higher class than these subjects and the photographer, also in a higher class than his subjects. The unholy trinity of viewer, subject, and photographer; and recognizing the fact that I was peering into this world that I wouldn't otherwise have access to and wondering if I shouldn't have access to it after all that. And because in documentary practice we think about issues of representation all the time, it seemed that Shelby's work was the perfect opportunity to reflect on that great problem. But in terms of objectivity: no. I think that what I experienced in the making of this film was an arc from voyeur to participant and as we were shooting we began to focus on that transition as the governing principle of our piece--to recreate the arc of that experience.
It's effective--it's hard to see Adams's work out of context as anything other than sort of scary.
I agree. A lot of them are quite scary: lit from below, he uses wide-angle lenses that distort the edges--there's a sinister intensity to a lot of these images that are treated by the families like family pictures. But the ironic thing is that after seeing these photographs, after cycling through all of the stereotypes that come to mind when you do--this guy'll shoot me if I come on his land, these guys are inbred, all the things that you learn about hillbilly stereotypes--were dispelled as soon as we got involved with these people.
I'm thinking of a shot of a man holding a giant hunting knife in his kitchen.
That's Burly Childers, a great example because he's this sweetheart of a man, a saint really who's dedicated his life to raising his family. Adams tries to explain it in the film and give his version of it, but just when you're looking at it without context, I mean, what can you think given our backgrounds and circumstances: given the way Adams shoots it? It looks like a threatening act.
He says that the knife is just something that Burly's proud of.
Right, if in fact that is the truth.
Do you think that Adams feels as though he's providing appropriate context?
I do, at least I think that Shelby might be trying to, but I don't think he succeeds, and I think that's why his photographs generate so much controversy. People do recoil--the images are frightening and hard to look at and all the stereotypes swim to the fore unbidden when you look at them and do I really deserve this privileged view into these families. If Shelby is trying to celebrate acceptance, he's not doing it for me in these photographs, and that's a hard, hard call for us, too, in making this film.
What was his reception to your wanting to embark on this documentary?
We negotiated with him for about a year before he even agreed to do it and it was to his credit from worry of how we would portray his subjects. There was a previous piece done on him by RK--a German filmmaker came and it was just awful: carnival music and distorted images of some of his subjects. Really low, and Shelby felt completely betrayed by that--felt that his subjects were completely betrayed. So we went through many drafts of a contract with him. Initially, he wanted some say in the final cut of the film but we said that we couldn't do that, I mean, I told him that this was a film about him and so he'd have to trust us in that way. But he did negotiate and we thought that it was important that he had a say and more, that his subjects have a say, so after all was said and done, we took a trip back through the area with a VCR in the back of the car and showed the film to all the families featured and if there was anything that they didn't want in, we took it out.
Similar to Adams's own process.
It is--and it made sense. It was an interesting process for us because we'd never done anything like that before. With Bowles, we made the film, edited it, and then I showed it to him in Morocco after it was finished, released, and everything. But it was really important to do that for this picture because we're dealing with two subjects: Shelby is a public person, in the public eye, and has to be open to a certain amount of scrutiny--but that's not to say that his subjects do. That's the delicate line that we found ourselves walking.
Was there a lot of material excised at the subjects' request?
No, and that's the fascinating part, there was hardly anything. One woman didn't like a cut from her face to a snake, she didn't like the juxtaposition of images, the inference that they were related somehow. Burly had a problem with the whole discussion over the meaning of the photograph that you mention in the Childers' kitchen. Shelby talks about the inspiration for that, this idea of Abraham and Isaac and all these issues symbolically, and Burly said, "So what are you saying, that I'm trying to kill my son?" So there was this discussion back and forth and we took out some of that, but ultimately we said to Shelby that, "This is your quarrel with Burly, this is something that you should be talking about with him. The problem is not with us." And then there was this photograph called "The Kiss," which is a very disturbing picture of Homer and Selina kissing that Burly didn't want in--he never liked that picture, he told us, so we took it out along with another in which he was unshaven.
It's interesting to me that there were no objections raised to the inference of incest.
That surprised me, too.
Some of the rationale given for requested edits suggests to me a high level of visual sophistication among these subjects--something they're not given credit for by a lot of the critical community.
It's one of those unanswerable questions, right, when [venerated New York art critic A.D.] Coleman says these people don't know what they're assenting to and then when [photographer] Mary Ellen Mark says, "That's bullshit, just because they're poor, they're not stupid," they're both right in a way. I mean, you also have to consider that Mark may have a vested interest in saying that because a lot of the same charges levelled against Shelby are probably levelled against her as well--but Coleman does speak from a fairly rare, intellectual perspective and how do they know how they're being perceived in a gallery in Berlin? How do they know how they're being perceived by people in expensive clothes sipping Champaign and looking at their pictures? The whole international language of photography, Coleman thinks, is at play here and of course it is--and he thinks that if the subjects knew what the pictures were saying in that language, that they wouldn't assent to their exhibition so easily. That's his argument. And the other side is Shelby's, who's been working with the same group of people for about thirty years and if there was something wrong, so the argument goes, he would have been stopped long ago.
You seem conflicted, still, yourself.
I might be more conflicted than when before I started. The film is open-ended, that's something we really wanted to be careful to do. I mean, resolution is such an obvious impulse in film. But also, I wanted people to make up their own minds to the extent possible--to engage in debate about these issues that we've been talking about of exploitation, of voyeurism, of objectivity, and to walk away from it edified by the discussion rather than mollified by some sort of false solution.
Both of your films detail artists who work on the margins of society--Bowles the ex-patriot in a crumbling fantasia, and Adams's subjects literally "the invisibles."
Certainly for as much as Shelby's subjects are on the margins of mainstream American culture, in a real way I, as a Canadian, often feel like I'm on that margin as well--and in many ways just as oppressed and diminished. I had a real interest in this group of people and I wonder if it's almost an affinity. I had a real interest in his claims of documentation.
In a similar vein, you use a clip from Deliverance to highlight some of mainstream America's notions about Appalachia--but I wonder if director John Boorman, himself a foreign director, didn't see the hillbilly "villains" of the piece as the heroes.
Yes. Wouldn't it be fascinating to ask Boorman about that? We originally, it was a really controversial thing to put that clip in there. I mean, over and above the fact that it cost us thousands to put that clip in there, we originally were worried because it was so loaded a reference. When we were kicking the idea around everyone assumed that we would use the "squeal like a pig" scene, but it was Shelby who said that bringing up that issue here wasn't so relevant as the violence. When you see these outsiders coming in, and when you learn more about the making of the film and how some of the locals used felt fine and others felt really exploited, you get this really slippery picture of what it was like there not only in the film but surrounding the film. When Ned Beatty says, "Talk about pitiful," that presumption of the outsider, you feel like, you know what, he should get it somewhere along the line. Shelby's a big fan of Deliverance, by the way--he says it's the only film that basically tells it like it is.
You expressed a little caution earlier in regards to Adams's explanation of the hunting knife scene, why is that?
In the long interview that we did with him in Massachusetts, he contradicts himself often about his work. Sometimes deliberately, I think, sometimes not. He holds that these photographs are a portrait of the subjects and a self-portrait simultaneously--that there's nothing contradictory about that uneasy relationship between the two things. The photograph of the hog killing crystallizes the difficulty for me in one image--once you learn that he bought that hog based on a memory he had as a child of doing that with his grandfather, your experience of that photograph completely changes. There's nothing contextually behind it when you just look at it and consider too that there were two graduate students there providing a multi-angle shoot--it doesn't take long at all before it gets amazingly complicated. Shelby will say on the one hand that he's a documentary photographer, so what--and then that he's not a documentary photographer. So when I express caution, it's because I don't know whether he's revising his story--he's steeped in biblical and Jungian imagery--or that he took the photograph and now is trying to find ways of explaining it that fit into a particular kind of discourse about photographer. It's something that Wendy Ewell says about him in the film that we didn't ultimately include, she says, "Y'know, Shelby's an Appalachian man, fundamentally, and everything else is just layers on top of that." And she says that Shelby wouldn't see the threat in his pictures--that he'd call it "intense," but that he wouldn't see what his work conveys.
I'd like to hear your thoughts about the documentary filmmaker's role and intrusiveness, using the example of Steve James's Stevie if you can.
That's such an interesting issue because nobody can argue for objectivity in documentary with any degree of seriousness these days. People who still try to do that are either ignorant or crazy. I'm thinking of the voiceover History Channel documentaries that you see now that have become this convention that people are comfortable with as a reliable means of "objective" information. The other side of that, this Steve James and Ross McElwee thing, is that to insert yourself in an obvious way is really problematic. I guess I should say that it's problematic when it's done wrong, and I guess that's what I find so great about McElwee. He engages in these confessionals and manages to do it in a way that works--and I thought it worked in Stevie, too, but I was bothered by the way that the film was resolved so neatly. The subject goes off to prison and so on, and though James acknowledges his feeling of guilt, I think that strand should either be more or less present--it wasn't enough for me to feel empathy about his position. How does he reconcile this issue as it becomes a documentary event? Like so many unanswerable issues embedded in what we do, it's a tough call.