Landscapes blighted by industry nevertheless have strange beauty

Posted: June 29, 2007

Jennifer Baichwal's meditative documentary Manufactured Landscapes begins with an eight-minute tracking shot of a Chinese factory, numbing in its breadth and repetition. The factory is not identified, nor is the product, but that's hardly the issue. The place is a soul killer.

Her subjects are twofold, the eminent photographer and her fellow Canadian Edward Burtynsky and, through his work, visiting the modern vistas scorched by industry. Baichwal's moving images mirror his still panoramas. "The new landscape is the one we change," he says. "The one we disrupt in the pursuit of progress."

Burtynsky tries to remain neutral while traveling through China, not an easy task in these harsh places, with a foray to a Bangladesh port drowning in crude. Baichwal tries, too. The film and photographer both produce gorgeous images of the modern world. Cinematographer Peter Mettler's shot of clothing irons floating on a conveyer belt, some of the 20 million that one factory produces annually, is as ruminative as Burtynsky's landscape of vast coal pyramids.

Manufactured Landscapes is a visual poem, an irony in that it moves slowly while capturing beauty about industrial life which is rarely either.

There's little talking in the film, and much of what Burtynsky says on location is negligible and largely technical. Frankly, the movie could have done with less.

Dan Driscoll's music, though, is ideal. It's atonal synthesized electronica, also the product of man-made machinery. When noise is silenced in the industrial world, the observer is forced to see more of its cumulative aftermath on the Earth and its inhabitants.

China is of particular interest because industrialization is happening at warp speed while many of its workers remain unaware of the collateral damage. The Three Gorges Dam dislocated a million people. China was 90 percent agrarian when Mao died in 1976, Burtynsky says, and today it's 30 percent. Many raw materials necessary to produce goods are shipped in to take advantage of cheap labor, then shipped back out again. Half of all the world's dead computers come back to waste in toxic junkyards picked over by willing workers.

The ships, of course, move around the world with oil, while China relies heavily on coal that chokes the skies in a persistent haze.

Of his work, Burtynsky says, "I thought about putting it in a more politicized setting," but he's the antithesis of documentarian Michael Moore. He realizes "not saying what you should see, allows more people to see the world differently."

Manufactured Landscapes *** (out of four stars)

Produced and directed by Jennifer Baichwal, distributed by Foundry Films, Mercury Films and the National Film Board of Canada. With Edward Burtynsky.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Parent's guide: NoMPAA rating (safe for children but may be too subtle)

Playing at: Ritz Five

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or

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