Edward Burtynsky has been taking photographs of the changing landscape of planet earth for decades. His enigmatic, haunting photos of the impact of industrialization on the planet, and on the people living on it, have been exquisitely translated to film by Jennifer Baichwal. When I talked with them on June 30, 2007, accomplishing that transmutation, including an astonishing, seemingly impossible tracking shot in a Chinese factory, was on my list of topics to discuss. The conversation ranged from there, taking in the unexpectedly dark side of recycling, the worrisome pollution that is a by-product of same, and why Burtynsky has regular chest x-rays as a result of photographing it.
Their 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.
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.