Manufactured Landscapes

12/20/2009

Canada / 2006 / English

Directed by Jennifer Baichwal

Still from 'Manufactured Landscapes'Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary follows the photographer Edward Burtynsky, who creates trenchant portraits of the industrial waste that has largely come to define our relationship to the land from which we originated. These new and multiplying sights have begun to parallel geography as we have so far known it; in Burtynsky’s serried and strangely beautiful photographs we see deserts of coal slag, mountains of scrap metal, lakes of oil. While far from cynical or blasé about these subjects, both he and director Baichwal do not spend very much time proselytizing on topics like climate change and waning resources, preferring to leave the images free to affect viewers in a multitude of ways.

Burtynsky photographs instances in which our industry has come to define  places, and has supplanted their essential DNA with a foreign one. These are landscapes that have been scooped out, stripped bare, or whose very element has been usurped by our runoff.  After years of focusing on places where nature and industry are violently forced together, clumsily generating a hybrid sense of location, he turns now to the places whose raisons d’être, in their entirety, are as artificial constructs. Not content to simply transform our world through industry, we now break down and virtually recreate the land in the image of our extraction, development, and recycling.

China is the logical focal point of his journey, as the materials that people harvest from the Earth end up there and achieve more complex permutations at the factories, where they become usable products. The volume of scrapped material is tremendous. Human beings wearing protective gloves and masks sort through the mountains of discarded material looking or things that can be recycled. So-called ‘E-waste’ recyclers disassemble computer chips, thereby releasing poisonous metals that make their way into the water system.

Still from 'Manufactured Landscapes'The film opens with a tracking shot across a factory floor somewhere in China. It goes on interminably, as the place is vast. Some faces look up at the camera, some are absorbed in work – it is like an enclosed world, with its own climate, GDP, and cultures. For something that is composed primarily of repetitious actions, the work done in the factory presents a fairly varied collection of human activity with an incredible degree of minutiae, as there seems to be a person for each little bit that goes into making a single device. In contrast to this, there is a certain beauty in the place’s outward homogeneity, but it is startling and disquieting to notice it. Manufactured Landscapes gives context to Burtynsky’s work, examining the human element behind all this man-made growth. In this sense it should be considered as a collaboration between the artist and the filmmaker, as it has a greater function than simply exploring the photographs or acting as their extension.

In Chittagong, in the ship-breaking yards, Baichwal watches boys who scrape out crude oil by the barrelful, their legs and arms painted black with the stuff, and Burtynsky muses on how, when he’s driving in his car, so many things immediately around him – the steering wheel, the windows, the pavement beneath him – owe their existence to oil. What he and the viewer have in common with the Bangladeshi boys is that their world is awash with it oil, ever more composed of it. For us in the West it is a world in which crude has been sculpted into plastic. The sort of transmogrifying omnipresence that synthetics increasingly take on presents a self-perpetuating imperative to generate more. Permeation is no longer as much a factor as enveloping totality.

Burtynsky explores the obligatory process of first changing the already existing land to make way for the new, intentional one. Creating the reservoir made by the Three Gorges Dam (the largest in the world) on the Yangtze River required that thirteen cities be dismantled. The citizens, put up in temporary shanty towns, were employed to pick apart their own buildings, brick by brick, so that water could cover the area and ships could pass, the once populated and cultivated area quickly being reduced to a denuded wasteland.

Still from 'Manufactured Landscapes'Ultimately Burtynsky’s sometimes grim photographs render the thesis with more coherence than does Baichwal’s documentation of it. The latter perhaps labors a bit under a perponderance of things to show. The film loses its way at the end while looking at Shanghai – a city that grows by about 1 million people per year – and gets a bit dumbstruck by the sheer scale of it. Burtynsky wants to talk about it, and Baichwal wants to understand his thoughts on it, but neither is successful in communicating its relevance. We pay a visit to a nouveau riche home and a nightclub where young people dance in strobescopic darkness. We have fallen at an oblique angle to the film’s beginnings; yes, Shanghai is an urban agglomeration built on the refinement of materials taken from the Earth, but it does not represent an intentional place akin to the miles of factory floor, the vast machinery of cargo ships, or even the land transfigured by dam construction. Those places, arguably more compelling (as far as Burtynsky’s work is concerned), are conscious constructs, aware of their own artificiality, while Shanghai represents the somewhat more organic, though no less destructive, flourishing of an extant human settlement. It is the subconscious of our growth, done without thought about sustainability, felling traditional houses and dispensing with the past.

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