Monday, January 7, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes

By Elise Nakhnikian

The first scene of Manufactured Landscapes is nearly wordless, but it tells us everything we need to know about this brilliant and unsettling documentary. A minutes-long tracking shot through a seemingly endless factory in China, it shows us one of the places that cranks out the disposable stuff we consume. It’s so enormous it makes the Ford plant I visited in Detroit as a kid look like a dollhouse.

The information here is almost purely visual. We never even learn what the factory is making. In fact, we don’t hear a word about anything until Edward Burtynsky, the photographer whose work the movie documents, starts talking about the philosophy behind his photography, explaining that his aim is to “look at the industrial landscape as a way of defining who we are and our relationship to the planet.”

When Burtynsky says “look,” he really means it. His photography, and director Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary, are about truly looking at – and thinking about – things you’ve probably never seen before, although they’re intimately connected to your daily life.

Burtynsky homes in on some creepily fascinating places. For the first decade or so of his 20-some years of documenting our “industrial landscape,” he shot the mines and quarries from which raw materials are extracted, often leaving denuded land and fiery red or lime green rivers and lakes in their wakes.

In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal and director of photography Peter Mettler follow Burtynsky as he researches a book on China, the ultimate developing nation. We see raw materials shipped overseas and turned into commodities that are shipped back out again, used, and then returned to China (where, we learn, 50 percent of our discarded computers wind up) to join mountains of homogenous trash, sifted through by workers who salvage the reusable parts.

To learn about the power required to make and transport all those things, we watch the construction of the world’s largest dam – an undertaking so huge that 13 whole cities were razed and about a million people displaced to create it. We also take a side trip to Bangladeshi shipbreaking yards where, as the photographer puts it, “18, 19, 20-year-old boys in oil up to their necks” tear apart retired oil tankers.

Burtynsky doesn’t want to preach; he just wants to help us think about the consequences of our actions. “I think many people today sit in that uncomfortable spot where we don’t necessarily want to give up what we have, but we realize what we’re doing is creating problems that run deep,” he says in an interview included on the DVD. “It’s not a simple right or wrong. It needs a whole new way of thinking.”

He doesn’t claim to know what that way of thinking might be. On the contrary, as he points out, he can’t even document the problem without contributing to it. When he photographs something, “I arrive in my car made of iron, filled with gas. I pull out a metal tripod and grab film that’s loaded with silver and start taking pictures. So everything that I’m doing is connected to the thing I’m photographing.”

Baichwal and Mettler document Burtynsky’s process as well as his images, showing him as he researches and composes photos. It’s interesting to watch him direct the people in his shots, urging them into the frame or moving them to create a more compelling composition. Maybe that’s why the people in his pictures are used so effectively, making you think about the effects of our blighted landscapes on the people who live in them -- children for whom this is all they know, workers who make a meager living creating or recycling our stuff, and elders who have to adjust to this strange new world.

The filmmakers also sometimes include interviews with people onsite about what’s going on, or zoom in for close-ups of the people he shoots. “A lot of what we were doing with the film was to try to bring you into the situation, to experience the place that he’s taken this monumental image of,” says Mettler in an interview on the DVD.

Like Sebastiao Salgado, whose gorgeous images of things like South African coal mines tell a brutal story, Burtynsky makes pictures so beautiful that you linger enough to think about the ugliness behind them. When cautious bureaucrats try to keep him from shooting a scene that they fear may “cause some negative influence,” Burtynsky’s translator reassures them: “Through his camera lens, though his eyes, it will appear beautiful.” And, amazingly, it always does.

His intentionally oblique narration generally provides context rather than telling you what you are looking at. “The idea here was not to create a direct narrative that follows the film, but to create embankments as you go down that river that keep you going downstream or not going in the wrong direction,” he says in the DVD interview.

That may bother you – I sometimes found myself wanting to know a little more about what I was looking at -- but in the end, it worked for me. And if you don’t have the patience for slow-moving movies, this one is not for you. But if you’re willing to slow down and really watch, the eerie images of Manufactured Landscapes contain a world of information.

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