Manufactured Landscapes – Review
by Paul Townend
(September 29, 2006 – Toronto, ON) Jennifer Baichwal’s latest award-winning feature-length documentary is on the life and work of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer who specializes in large-scale photographs of "manufactured landscapes" – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines, dams. He travels throughout China to such sites as the controversial Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world, and a Shanghai electronic-parts factory that is literally a kilometre in length. Manufactured Landscapes’s visual beauty is greatly enhanced by the cinematography of Peter Mettler (Gambling, Gods and LSD), who accompanied Baichwal and Burtynsky on their search for areas of large industrial waste and serves as a creative consultant on the film. Mettler also provided some of the synthetic score that is used extensively throughout the film.
In many ways, Burtynsky is a classicist, looking for beauty even in the worst toxic wastes. His photographs are stunning works of landscapes or abstract art, and he can make a large pile of computer parts resemble a Jackson Pollock painting. In one revealing scene, Baichwal and her crew are filming while Burtynsky is negotiating with a site manager who is reluctant to let him photograph the piles of coal slag. The Canadian translator is telling the manager – who wants the cameras turned off – that he will make it look beautiful. Metter stops filming, and the rest of the scene is shown in a series of still photographs and voice over. Burtynsky has brought along a book of his work, and convinces the manager to let him take a look. The resulting beautiful photograph is shown on screen.
Manufactured Landscapes opens with an extraordinary, uninterrupted eight-and-a-half minute dolly shot inside the huge factory. The voice over by Burtynsky is about Nature (with a capital N) and industrial landscapes, and this immediately presents the film with its fatal flaw. There is nothing in Burtynsky’s generalities that is not obvious, yet said in such a way that suggests he thinks he is imparting received wisdom of the ages. The first time we see him at work, he is high on forklift overlooking the factory from the outside, setting up his camera and fussing about the light. As he is doing this, Mettler’s camera is prowling through the orderly crowd, listening in as section leaders berate their work units (all carefully numbered) for poor performance and sloppy work. Mettler’s camera takes in the whole scene and the details.
Ironically, and probably not intentionally, this scene dramatizes the limitations of photography in capturing the truth of the moment. Photography, like painting, is a two-dimensional art form that doesn’t benefit well from the cinematic treatment. Film is photography plus time and motion. There is a close up of a young girl working with minute parts, smaller than her finger nails, as she repeatedly puts them together and squirts water over them, all in the matter of a spilt second, which is simply breathtaking.
Much of the film is composed of close ups of his photographs and Burtynksy explaining himself on or off camera. Mixed in with Metter’s work, there is some footage of him on earlier trips to China and Bengladesh. In the filthy shipwreaking yards of Chittagong we get some pseudo-profound nonsense about ships and globalization, and how Western waste comes to be dumped in this dreadful, toxic place. It’s the sort of white man’s burden rubish you can get from certain leftish Canadians who travel the world to point out the faults of their own culture. Burtynsky seems blissfully unaware that ships and globalization go back as least as far as the Phoenicians, some 3,000 years ago.
It would seem the longer mankind lives on this earth, the more and nastier waste he is going to dump on others. Burtynsky travels the globe to show us how truly beautiful this can be made to appear. Manufactured Landscapes won the top Canadian award at this year’s TIFF and the top documentary award at the Atlantic Film Festival.
Also see: Jennifer Baichwal’s filmography.