Directed by Jennifer Baichwal. (2007, NR, 80 min.)
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Sept. 7, 2007
At some point during Manufactured Landscapes' eight-minute opening tracking shot of a hangar-sized factory in China, you may get the sensation you’re in uncharted waters. After all, few documentaries seek the sublime and meditative in something as dreary and disheartening as a manufacturing plant. Then again, other documentaries aren’t about the topsy-turvy world of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer who takes the most gorgeous, expansive pictures you’d ever want to see of the most depressing manmade wastelands you could possibly imagine. Manufactured Landscapes follows the photographer on a trip through China, starting at the above-mentioned factory, where clothing irons bound for the West come off assembly lines by the thousands and workers are reduced to little more than machines testing air nozzles. Burtynsky also travels to the Yangtzee River to shoot Three Gorges Dam, which is so large that several midsized cities had to be leveled and their inhabitants relocated to make way for its impact. Then it’s on to Shanghai, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, where new is battling old and claiming victories at every turn and then erecting skyscrapers as trophies. What becomes clear is that Burtynsky loves size and he loves damage. And what he shoots – and what Landscapes director Baichwal (The True Meaning of Pictures) shoots in response – is so gorgeous, you almost feel guilty for enjoying yourself: Should we be ashamed of our industrial gall or bask in the magnificence of a ship-breaking beach in Bangladesh or an e-waste landfill in rural China? That’s the sinister thing about globalization: the terrible, exculpating interconnectivity of it all. Who’s to blame when every purchase we make requires an uncountable sacrifice from the planet and from those unfortunate enough to have been born poor in the wrong part of it? Burtynsky, for one, is clever enough to stay nonpartisan. He’s an artist, so he doesn’t want his own politics getting in the way of his viewers seeing the world in a new way, yet he also recognizes that if it weren’t for all that hard-won oil, plastic, and silver, he wouldn’t have a camera with which to shoot that world. Baichwal is comfortable with those moral and aesthetic ambiguities as well, and, as a result, she’s created a visual poem of devastation that makes one question one’s entire relationship to the world. My first question: What kind of nefarious events had to occur so that I could purchase the computer with which I write this review?