Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
Featuring Edward Burtynsky
Knowing and admiring the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, I confess to some initial skepticism about the purpose of the documentary Manufactured Landscapes. Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal might be able to tell us something of the circumstances surrounding Burtynsky's shooting Chinese factories the size of cities or the massive Three Gorges Dam project, but she could hardly amplify the Canadian photographer's work: Surely, his crystalline images revealing the ferocious beauty and unrelenting scale of industrial processes and wholesale urbanization speak for themselves. Why bother reproducing them on film?
Partway into a viewing of Manufactured Landscapes, however, I changed my mind. Baichwal, who shadowed Burtynsky on a trip to China, begins her film in a huge factory devoted to the manufacture of small electrical appliances, most of them unidentifiable. Burtynsky will shoot the interior and, elevated on a scaffolding erected outdoors in the broad central avenue of the complex, produce a bird's-eye view of an army of yellow-smocked workers as they gather in teams for a pep talk and dressing-down.
Baichwal, meanwhile, begins with one slow, steady and seemingly interminable tracking shot down one side of the factory floor, documenting row after row after row of workers at their machines: Her camera is a moving one and she can use a different technique to show the colossal scale of this place.
But a few scenes later, she reveals more than that as she films one worker assembling a dozen parts into a small electrical switch box. The young woman's hands fly as she pops in various bits of plastic, deftly twists a copper wire in place and smacks on the lid. For an instant, it almost seems as though Baichwal has sped up her film and we have been transported into the slapstick world of Modern Times. "I can do 400 units a day without overtime," the worker boasts.
Yes, this film can actually broaden Burtynsky's work, underlining the power of the photographs by revealing more of the subject.
Harnessing Burtynsky's power on film is seductive and on one or two occasions in what is otherwise a fascinating look at his China project, Baichwal abuses the link. She shoots more bright-yellow workers -- this time they are scrounging through a giant dump of used metal parts, sorting out material for recycling -- and focuses briefly on the instantly identifiable shape of the base of a household iron before cutting back to the factory floor where a flotilla of new irons sail by dangling from an overhead wire.
Burtynsky's photographs of dumps, especially those where the billions of bits and bytes of so-called e-waste wind up, inevitably force the viewer to ponder the implications of consumerism, but when Baichwal repeats her trick with the irons a second time, now moving from the factory floor back to the dump, she is beginning to preach.
Similarly, when she chooses, during a segment featuring the runaway development of Shanghai, to follow a wealthy real-estate agent as she proudly shows off her fabulous house, the documentarian is being distracted by specific issues of class that largely lie outside Burtynsky's wider-angle lens.
The photographer, who appears on screen from time to time, negotiating with Chinese officials through an interpreter or delivering a lecture about his work somewhere in the West, concludes the film by stating that there are no simple rights and wrongs here, just as he begins it by saying that it is neither his intention to celebrate nor to damn what his camera records.
Of course, his Chinese work forces you to think about the impact of human activity, but it doesn't tell you what to think. With one or two lapses, Baichwal is the perfect fellow traveller.