Manufactured Landscapes opens with a single, bold, mesmerizing 10-minute shot; a camera dollies past row upon row of a Chinese manufacturing plant, as thousands of young people assemble various mechanical parts in what looks like an endless, twisted funhouse mirror. When we finally see a full photograph of the factory, the walls actually recede to the vanishing point; the plant really is endless. As we will soon learn, this factory is no anomaly; China's manufacturing industry, and its industrialization boom in general, may very well be endless as well.
Landscapes is a riveting look at this rapid cultural transition through the eyes of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer who specializes in what he calls "manufactured landscapes," or parts of the earth utterly transformed by mankind. China has become the big bogeyman in recent discussions on global warming, as its industries explode with little or no concern for their environmental impact. Burtynsky's photographs, collected in an exhibit of the same name, explore that impact to devastating effect.
The film's minimal narrative is shaped by a lecture given by Burtynsky and documentary footage following the photographer on his trip to China in 2004. Aside from a few scuffles with reluctant Chinese authorities, Burtynsky himself is involved in very little of the drama. Few interviews are done with the people seen on camera, and the images, as Burtysnky insists his own photographs must do as well, largely speak for themselves.
Director Jennifer Baichwal, who traveled with Burtynsky along with her cinematographer Peter Mettler, intercuts her footage with Burtynsky's actual photographs. Aside from a few moments of zooming into specific details of the photographs, Baichwal largely lets them stand unadorned. What's remarkable is that her footage manages to add meaning to the photographs, already so powerful on their own. Seeing the scores of factory workers before they line up the way they appear in Burtynsky's photograph, or watching the workers tear down the walls of an entire city, the human role in China's industrial revolution becomes much more evident than in Burtynsky's large-scale images. One subject, shown a Polaroid of a photograph, remarks that it's too wide, you can't see the faces; for Burtysnky that's the point, but for Baichwal there is a human element worth exploring as well.
The film serves as a kind of travelogue through industrialized China, starting at a factory in which workers--scolded for low productivity--display astonishing dexterity at, say, testing 500 spray nozzles over the course of an hour. The camera then moves on to the immense amount of waste produced by such factories, memorably cutting from rows of brand-new irons merrily rolling along an assembly line to a destroyed iron plate on a massive heap of garbage. Burtynsky notes in his lecture that 50% of the world's computers end up in China to be recycled, a statistic accompanied by images of elderly Chinese women cracking microchips with their hands, and a mountain of mangled, twisted computer monitors.
After a trip to the shipyards in eastern China, the film moves on to Bangladesh, where old shipping freighters are destroyed for parts; the sight of young men who slop around in the lakes of crude oil found in the hulls is as compelling as the skeletons of freighters stranded in the muck. The film ends back in China, depicting the wholesale destruction of cities in order to make room for a hydroelectric dam--environmental progress, but at what cost?--and, finally, the rampant urban growth of Shanghai.
Manufactured Landscapes moves slowly and deliberately through its scenes, much like that first factory tracking shot, which makes it an art documentary even in the most literal sense. But there is an inconvenient truth to be found here, one much more frustrating than Al Gore's. Watching China as it threatens to tilt the crucial ecological balance, what exactly can we do? It's American and Canadian computers that are filling their landfills and poisoning their streams, not to mention how many of those irons will be shipped here. The film is no polemic, and Burtynsky insists that he has no message to spread with his photographs. While that may be true for his work, it is less true for Baichwal; there is a clear sense at the end of the film that something must be done to stop this. What the answer is, though, no one is willing or able to suggest.