‘Manufactured Landscapes’

Documenting 'new nature'


It takes director Jennifer Baichwal close to 10 minutes to move from one end to the other of the electronic-parts factory in Fujian, China — the fast-moving camera glides along the floor showing aisles and aisles of yellow-jacketed workers bent over their tasks.

Later, these same workers — hundreds of them — are herded into groups outside the immense factory building (also yellow) where they stand in straight lines stretching as far as the eye can see. What’s happening is that they’re made to listen to pep talks given by their earnest supervisors, urging them toward better and more efficient productivity. The sight is fascinating and awful, setting the tone for the rest of “Manufactured Landscapes,” a chilling but ultimately beautiful documentary on what industrialization is doing to man and the world as we know it. Or used to know it.

The film quietly traces over the contours of the vast, eerie wasteland of recycling plants. Or lingers over the slate-gray sky hanging over the rusting carcass of a tanker. Everywhere, workers assemble e-products (electronic and digital goods) and in the next scene, disassemble e-waste, knee deep in discarded metal that’s emitting toxic fumes. In Bangladesh, skinny teenage boys clean oil scum left by decommissioned tankers with no more than sponges and their bare hands. “Manufactured Landscapes” gazes on all this with what can only be described as glacial calm. It doesn’t ask for tears or sentiment, but only for the audience to gain a clear-eyed awareness of what’s going on, and confront the realization that we’re more or less powerless to stop it.

Manufactured Landscapes
Director Jennifer Baichwal
Run Time 87 minutes
Language English, Chinese

The film was inspired by the photography of Canadian Edward Burtynsky, famed for his stark but amazingly eloquent compositions of factories, dams and shipyards standing against the various landscapes they had smashed up or irreparably altered.

Baichwal follows Burtynsky on his latest project — a trip across China where he points his lens, not at the temples and pandas that his contemporaries are intent on capturing (and that are enthusiastically endorsed by the government in Beijing as appropriate subject matter), but for example the Bao Steel works in Shanghai, whose massive, towering piles of smoldering coal resemble rows of industrialized Egyptian pyramids, out of some nightmarish sci-fi movie.

Burtynsky also provides the narration as we follow him and Baichwal’s crew to ever-more dramatic horrors: the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River with its huge reservoir that destroyed and swallowed up three provinces in its construction, and the little girl who eats rice from a plastic bowl in the dust and cement fumes that envelop the entire area like a death shroud.

Burtynsky’s photography shares some aesthetics with the renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastiao¨ Salgado; both document workers toiling in the worst conditions, both looking unflinchingly at the victims of “progress.” But whereas Salgado had gotten right up close to his subjects and found art in the deep crevasses of their faces or the feverish glint of despair in their eyes, their muscles straining against the burden of manual labor, Burtynsky avoids direct contact. The workers in “Manufactured Landscapes” are for the most part, politely jacketed, impressively efficient and seen from a reasonable distance. What we see of their silence and disciplined obedience would have delighted Chairman Mao to the point of communistic ecstasy. No beads of sweat roll off brows, there are no creases on faces that speak of anguish. Sometimes on their lunch breaks, someone or other would crack a smile at the camera but for the most part they remain faceless, deprived of every other character trait except that of diligence.

Neither Burtynsky or the film is out to make a political statement; they’re grappling with issues that go beyond ideology. “Manufactured Landscapes” is about the machine of urbanization and how it continues to devastate, then change the physical world in the name of all things which the machine insists is necessary for a free, just world: consumerism, commerce, industry.

There are no answers and no solutions, but between Burtynsky and Baichwal they show us how a river, drenched in chemical waste and turgid with e-waste poison, can have a terrible, magical beauty more urgent than a thousand postcard depictions of that same river when it was clean and pristine. Wish you were here.