Manufactured Landscapes Reviews
The film explores the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who presents the other side of globalization and consumerist culture - the industrial and production side - through pointed, yet somehow frequently beautiful imagery that just stares you directly in the eyes, asking you what you think of it. Burtynsky's images are impersonal and highlight the mechanical nature and magnitude of his subjects and their effects on our changing world. The filmmaker however, brings focus to the human element by concentrating on a specific portion of each image - say, an individual at work. The camera lingers there and we invest in them, the day to day that we understand and to which we're generally able to relate. A slow panning out to the image as a whole exposes hundreds just like them lined up at the same work, whose bodies become just parts of a working machine. This removes the humanity and all that we see is mechanized industry.
Baichwal includes commentary from Burtynsky and on-site footage that extract the fundamentally environmentalist views of the photographer, yet eventually highlights his decision to enhance a certain elegance in these scenes. He is allowing the viewer to unravel their own opinion of these nearly unfathomable, eerily beautiful images and their underlying message. Yet the documentarian is contextualizing the imagery and challenging us to consider our reactions to it. She shows us that Burtynsky's decision to keep the message of these images ambiguous is a result of his sensitivity to the very consumerist culture that created these conditions in the first place. He knows that they will be best received in a depoliticized manner that empowers the viewer to come to their own conclusions. This fact incriminates us further through the message that we cannot even be shocked out of our ignorant comfort without it being on our own terms.
This film isn't any sort of exciting thrill-ride; it's a slow, deliberate visual journey through the industrial underbelly of our consumerist culture that few in the western world would likely ever experience otherwise. The amazement the viewer feels is inevitably coupled with a touch of boredom at the calculated slowness of the film, yet your own boredom is like a meta-commentary on the very reasons why we probably didn't know these circumstances exist. It's not exciting, it's uncomfortable and real and sterile. The reality of the situation for those that live it and the world that suffers for it is precisely the polar opposite of our exciting consumer experience they are suffering to create. This film is a compelling rephrasing of Burtynsky's provocative body of work that challenges us to think beyond our daily experience and decide for ourselves what globalization truly means for us and our world.
Baichwal and her DP Peter Mettler often struggle with the murky Chinese light - and undoubtedly long for a bigger budget.