The very first image in Manufactured Landscapes is a stately, Sacha Vierny-style tracking shot peering down the long aisles of a massive Chinese manufacturing facility where scores of workers hunch over tables, dutifully assembling little bits of material into larger pieces of whoknowswhat. At first, what’s remarkable about the men and women in the shot is how little attention they pay to the movie camera moving sideways past them. Occasionally someone glances up, or peers over a shoulder, but mostly they seem absorbed in their routines. The camera keeps tracking, taking in aisle after aisle, stacks and stacks of boxes, and gliding past slightly more open spaces where one or two uniformed workers are actually walking around. The seemingly endless spectacle builds up an almost comical intensity — I was suddenly reminded of the traffic jam in Week End and half-expected Mettler’s camera to alight on some heinous act of violence — a supervisor garroted, perhaps, by a finely-tuned machine tool. Instead, the pay-off is nothing less ordinary than an overhead shot depicting the factory’s aisles receding into distance.
Cinematorapher Peter Mettler’s elegant imagery coexists in Manufactured Landscapes with more detailed, richly colored photography by Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian artist whose project involves documentation of “nature transformed through industry.” He shoots awesome, vaguely frightening landscapes depicting the results of strip mining, rapid urbanization, or massive engineering projects like China’s gargantuan Three Gorges Dam. The images are striking in their otherworldliness, suggesting science-fiction landscapes as readily as dystopian ruins of the here and now. They’re relics of human pride and folly — signposts, perhaps, on a one-way street.
Director Jennifer Baichwal lets Burtynsky do the talking, but steers clear of having him declare some kind of manifesto. As he explains in a voiceover near the end, he avoids making photographs that comment explicity on their subjects, since he doesn’t want his audience to approach the work as a yes-or-no proposition. Mostly the images speak for themselves, which is good enough. Manufactured Landscapes isn’t about the artist, but instead about his art.
Fortunately, Baichwal has interesting ways of getting inside the photos, commenting on them, and stealthily creating narratives that work alongside them. Burtynsky’s landscapes are typically disconcertingly inhuman — when people appear in his photographs of gigantic Chinese factories, they’re seen in aggregate rather than as individuals. But when he does indulge in an uncharacteristic brush with portraiture, as with a shot of an old Chinese woman sitting on her porch, Baichwal makes sure to put that picture in context, and to give him a chance to explain that picture’s meaning.
We’re shown images that become increasingly disconcerting as the film progresses. The sad destitution of villagers whose lives revolve around salvaging precious bits of material from the technological detritus of the rest of the world — much of which finds its final resting place in China — give way to the mammoth hulks of seafaring vessels come to ground for shipbreaking in Bangladesh. Even those, the very ruins of industry, are eventually dwarfed by the sheer scale of the Three Gorges Dam project across the Yangtze River. And that’s where the tone of the film begins to shift perceptibly toward complaint. We hear about the more than one million Chinese people who were displaced by the project — and who lived in tents as they were paid a pittance to dismantle their own villages. The film’s final section considers the dramatic impact of industrialization in Shanghai itself by contrasting the improved living quarters of the well-off with those of their numerous, less-fortunate neighbors.
The film introduces Burtynsky as a photographer shooting the massed workers at the Cankun Factory in Zhangzhou; it introduces his work in a slow zoom that moves backward out of one of his large-format images, which we suddenly realize hangs on a gallery wall as patrons filter into the room and make their ways around the exhibit. It’s a clever way for Baichwal to implicate the film’s audience in Burtynsky’s project. Inasmuch as his goal is to change people’s perception of the relationship between human endeavor and the natural environment, Baichwal thus challenges the film’s audience to confront its own feelings about what it sees. I gather Manufactured Landscapes is already available on (an expensive) DVD, but it’s well worth seeing this on a big screen, where the images benefit greatly from scale. It’s a humbling experience. B+
IMDb: Manufactured Landscapes
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
Cinematography by Peter Mettler
Edited by Roland Schlimme
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1