By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Manufactured Landscapes,” Zeitgeist Films, 2007]
Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky likes to capture scenes of “environment without nature,” places that have been stripped of their beauty and resources by man. He prefers to shoot things in their endless middles, grand vistas with no beginnings or endings, no edges whatsoever. In his eye, his subjects, from decay, to waste, to humanity (or an industrialized approximation), stretch on seemingly to infinity. Documentarian Jennifer Baichwal filmed Burtynsky on a trip to China; that footage forms the basis for this feature-length documentary on the man and the drastic environmental changes that are happening to the place he visited.
Burtynsky has an amazing inquisitiveness about him, something “Manufactured Landscapes” imparts on the viewer to great effect. I learned about things during this film I’d never even heard of before, like the massive danger to the environment posed by “e-waste,” which is what your computer and its affiliated parts become after you junk it. 50% of the world’s e-waste winds up in China, where tiny little villages strip mine these iHusks for whatever valuable materials can be yanked out of them and leave the rest to basically rot in massive piles of circuit boards and plastic. Burtynsky visits places where the mounds of e-waste threaten to contaminate the water supply and wipe out small pockets of humanity.
The film spends a great deal of time at China’s Three Gorges Dam, where somewhere in the neighborhood of one million people have been displaced from their homes and 13 cities and towns have been demolished in order to make way for the largest engineering project in the entire world. This sequence illustrates better than any other the true scope of the way mankind is “manufacturing” landscapes as well as the devastating toll that process has on the natural world.
In another sequence, Burtynsky and Baichwal show the way Chinese industry is transforming its workforce into a featureless mass not unlike the land that had to be cleared to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. The documentary opens with a shot down the length of a factory and it goes on and on forever you could take a cat nap and wake up and this shot would still be trucking past worker after anonymous worker. Often clothed in identical jumpsuits and masks, these laborers work with a robotic efficiency, assembling complex electronic equipment by hand in a few well-practiced seconds. The analogy is clear: the industrial revolution that’s hit China has transformed these workers as much as it has revamped the places they live.
Baichwal does a fine job of reminding us conspicuous consumers of our impact on our environment, but she goes on about a half hour longer than she needs to in order to make her point, and a sequence about the real estate business in Shanghai’s poorer communities is thematically irrelevant to the rest of the film. The initial shock and horror begins to fade with repetition and she threatens to leave the audience with a sense of exhaustion at the scope of problems rather than with a resolve to fix them. At its best and its worst, “Manufactured Landscapes” is a bit like a photograph itself: a beautiful, clear representation of something, but a representation frozen. By its nature, nothing can happen or change. Not until we see the photograph ourselves and do something about it.
“Manufactured Landscapes” opens in New York on June 20th (official site).