Click here to listen to the interview with Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky (19:21).
Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES starts with one of the most arresting sequences in cinema. It works both as a dazzling technical achievement, and also as a commentary on what is to come. The camera slowly tracks across the manufacturing floor of a Chinese factory and then it continues to track, and then it continues to track with the same unhurried pace moving along a seemingly impossible expanse of factory floor. The people who populate this factory are reduced in this sequence to the least important component of the scene as they drone on doing dull repetitive work that will benefit people in other parts of the world, but reap themselves a barely living wage and the promise of an endless succession of working days exactly like this one. When, several minutes into this pan, one of the workers finally looks up from his workstation as the camera slowly drifts by, it is jarring because until then this camera has been of no interest to anyone. And because it is a look made up of equal parts curiosity at the object capturing his image and annoyance at being put on display. It’s also jarring because with that look, the other people who have drifted across the screen become even more a part of the factory in the sense that they are as appreciated, utilitarian, and important as a fork lift, but not more, and not particularly in a different way. With that glance, the human element is brought sharply into focus and it seems oddly out of place.
It is in the service of introducing the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who has turned his considerable talent to documenting the effect human beings have had on the world around them. Not the traditional scenes of strip-mining, or clear-cutting, or suburbs encroaching on wetlands. No, his is a more subtle, more complex quest, the way globalization has set up a dynamic relationship between technology and humanity, with humanity coming out on the short end of that stick, but not putting up much of a fight about it. He is as curious about the results and the fallout of that phenomenon as that factory worker was about the camera interrupting his day. And there is the same soupcon of resentment.
The point of the documentary is twofold, and both are handled with equal finesse. First, to watch Burtynsky at work, to listen to his philosophy of photography. His thoughts are as direct and as finely framed as his photographs. Baichwal also catches him having a good time, whether wallowing in toxic muck to get a picture worth a thousand words, shooting inches from a welder’s sparks, or organizing a small army of factory workers into just the right configuration for group shot that is all about the impact of the mass, not the individuals involved. He is decisive, knowing the moment, the composition and capturing them with the minimal fuss of a man who knows what he is doing.
The second is even more remarkable. Baichwal’s camera does more than show the man at work, by adding the element of movement, of subjects captured over time, she has caught the gestalt of the photographer’s vision, and she expands on it, adding another dimension to it, making it richer without detracting from his still images. Drawing, for example, a piquant contrast between the bright yellow work clothes the small army of factory workers are wearing with the faux-cheery sunflowers painted everywhere in this industrial park where no real flowers grow. Seeing how he gets his photos detracts from the results not a whit, in fact, being able to see the world through Burtynsky’s eye is a heady experience.
It is Burtynsky’s artistry that he can render scenes of monotony, or squalor, or toxicity, or of all three at once, into such vibrant images that are as compelling as they are confrontational, as beautiful as they are brutal. And not just the workers collecting the toxic scraps from the bottom of a scrapped oil tanker. His images of factory workers lined up in identical blue jackets in a sterile industrial park inspires the same feelings of despair at the waste of human potential turned into so many willing cogs in a machine.
And yet, there is more to the story. And Burtynsky and Baichwal explore that with equal thoroughness, making the equally valid point that industry raises the standard of living. The workers have a better, though some a shortened, life than they would otherwise have. By contrast, the haunting image of an elderly lady in
The effect of incisive images coupled with equally incisive commentary, each complementing the other, has the same hypnotically seductive effect as that opening sequence. MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES is an intelligent consideration of what modern technology has wrought and the people who do and don’t embrace it. It is also one that never stoops to easy scape-goating, nor to pat, politically correct answers. It is as engaging, as maddeningly thought-provoking, as it is beautiful.