Jennifer Baichwal was born in Montréal and grew up in Victoria, British Columbia. She studied philosophy and theology at McGill University and received an M.A. in 1994, supported by a McGill Major Fellowship and a 2 year FCAR Master’s Scholarship.
She has been directing and producing documentaries for 15 years. Her first film, Looking You In The Back of the Head, an enquiry into the problem of personal identity, asked thirteen women to try to describe themselves and was first broadcast, to critical acclaim, on TVOntario's From the Heart. It subsequently sold for broadcast across Canada.
Let it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, her first feature documentary, won a 1999 International Emmy for Best Arts Documentary. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1998 and was nominated that year for a Best Feature Documentary Genie Award. It won Best Biography at Hot Docs in 1999 and was picked up for theatrical release by Mongrel Media in Canada, Zeitgeist Films in the U.S., and Uplink in Japan. The film has been sold for broadcast all over the world, and has been selected for a number of international film and television festivals, including Jerusalem, Buenos Aires, FIPA, Banff (where it received a Rockie nomination), Istanbul and Edinburgh.
The Holier It Gets documents a trek Baichwal took with her brother and two sisters to the source of the Ganges river with her father’s ashes. The film won Best Independent Canadian Film and Best Cultural Documentary at Hot Docs 2000, Geminis for Best Editing and Best Writing and was nominated for the Donald Brittain Award and the Chalmers Documentarian Award. It was commissioned by TVOntario and features music by Ravi Shankar and John McLaughlin.
The True Meaning of Pictures is a feature length film on the work of Appalachian photographer Shelby Lee Adams. It was commissioned by TVOntario, Bravo!, SBS Australia and Discovery Germany. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002 and was invited to the Sundance International Film Festival in January 2003. It won a Gemini award for Best Arts Documentary in 2003 and has played at numerous international festivals. The film was released on dvd by Docurama/New Video in October 2003.
Baichwal, along with Nick de Pencier, was commissioned in 2003-4 to make 40 short films on artists who have been supported over the past four decades by the Ontario Arts Council. These include writer Michael Ondaatje, artist Michael Snow, pianist Eve Egoyan and playwright Judith Thompson, and are in periodic rotation on TVOntario. The collection received a 2006 Gemini nomination for Best Direction in a Performing Arts Program or Series.
Manufactured Landscapes, a feature documentary about the work of artist Edward Burtynsky, was a co-production between Mercury Films, Foundry Films and the National Film Board. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2006 and won Best Canadian Feature Film, and has since received a number of other awards, notably a Genie for Best Documentary, Al Gore's Reel Current Award and the 2006 Toronto Film Critics' Award for Best Canadian Feature and Best Documentary 2006. It played theatrically in over 15 territories worldwide, after a prolonged and successful run in Canada.
Act of God, a feature documentary on the metaphysical effects of being struck by lightning and another collaboration between Mercury and Foundry, opened the Hot Docs Film Festival in April 2009 and was released in Canada afterwards by Mongrel Media. It has since played at a number of international festivals, and was released by Zeitgeist Films in the U.S. and Against Gravity in Poland. The film features Paul Auster, Dannion Brinkley and Fred Frith. It was commissioned by The Documentary Channel in Canada, Arte in France and Channel 4 in the U.K.
In 2011 Baichwal completed Payback, a documentary adaptation of Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, with the National Film Board of Canada and Ravida Din (Executive Producer, Quebec Production Centre). The film premiered in World Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012 and was released in Canada (Mongrel Media) in March, 2012 and the U.S. in April, 2012.
Watermark is a feature documentary film about human interaction with water around the world and marks Baichwal and de Pencier's second collaboration with Edward Burtynsky. The documentary is co-directed by Burtynsky, produced and filmed by de Pencier. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013, was a box office success in Canada, playing theatres for 4 months. It won the Toronto Film Critic’s Association prize for Best Canadian Film in Jan 2014 and Best Documentary at the the Canadian Screen Awards 2014. It has been released in 10 territories around the world.
Baichwal is currently in research for another feature documentary project, Anthropocene, with Nick de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky, which will mark the third in a trilogy of collaborative films including Watermark and Manufactured Landscapes.