Eight minutes. That's how long it takes director Jennifer Baichwal's swift-moving camera to track from one end of the 480-meter-long Cankun factory floor to the other in "Manufactured Landscapes'" opening shot.
Eight minutes. That’s how long it takes director Jennifer Baichwal’s swift-moving camera to track from one end of the 480-meter-long Cankun factory floor to the other in “Manufactured Landscapes'” opening shot. Conceived as a tag-along record of photographer Edward Burtynsky’s latest excursion, this landmark glimpse into China’s modern-day industrial revolution becomes something more — a profound, open-ended meditation on man’s physical impact on his environment. Without the involvement of a former vice president to catalyze publicity, this eye-opening docu will depend on festival awards,and impassioned critics to drive arthouse interest.
Scale is everything in Burtynsky’s large-format color photos. The 51-year-old artist has made a career of documenting “the largest industrial incursions” he could find: giant rock quarries and city-sized coal and copper mines where nature has been carved away and reshaped to leave abandoned slag heaps. “In one frame,” he explains, “you can show the dimensions of our extraction in the landscape.”
His latest Asian tour provides an entirely new set of subjects: mountains made of recycled computer parts, the rusting carcasses of freight ships, a 600-kilometer reservoir-in-the-making at the future site of the Three Gorges Dam (the graveyard of 13 cities, razed and relocated in the name of progress). Each photo conveys its own paradox, twisting together visions of past and future, beauty and decay: The scenes evoke century-old images when America and Europe underwent their own industrial revolutions, even as they forecast China’s rapid, often reckless urbanization.
Following along, Baichwal deftly uses the moving image to reinforce the spirit of Burtynsky’s still pictures, expanding the discourse by providing valuable context. Moving through a platoon of factory workers, Baichwal and d.p. Peter Mettler come to rest on Burtynsky setting up a complex crane shot. The shutter clicks to show his final composition, then Baichwal’s camera pulls back to reveal the image hanging on a gallery wall, where Western museum-goers examine the details.
The gesture serves as an invitation to consider the deeper philosophical implications of Burtynsky’s work. Much as director Nikolaus Geyrhalter does in food-industry docu “Our Daily Bread,” photog encourages auds to interact with these static tableaux and draw their own conclusions.
But Baichwal favors a more active camera. She’s not afraid to forge personal connections with the individual workers rendered as anonymous, microscopic blips in Burtynsky’s photos, even going so far as to interview several of them against the wishes of the Chinese authorities.
The artist’s own comments, culled primarily from lectures back home, focus on the tension between the disposable conveniences of today and the long-term environmental effects of industrialization. “Fifty percent of the world’s computers end up in China to be recycled,” Burtynsky explains, as editor Roland Schlimme cuts from an electronics assembly line to the scrap heap where workers pick through piles of “e-waste.”
Still, helmer keeps commentary to a minimum, while Dan Driscoll’s score encourages an ethereal, trance-like viewing experiencing by melding music with the ambient grind of industrial noise.
Even without the alarmist undercurrent of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,””Manufactured Landscapes” serves as a staggering wake-up call, underscoring how far removed Western consumers are from the production of everyday objects. Quite literally “made in China,” pic goes a long way to explore the implications of that phrase.