We just finished watching Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, and I’m feeling a little sick to my stomach. If you’ve never seen his work, Burtynsky is a Canadian artist who’s known for large-scale photos of industrial sites: mines, quarries, factories and dams. His photos are beguiling from a visual standpoint, but their content is disturbing.
There are mountains of discarded stuff: tires, e-waste, rubble from cities destroyed to make way for China’s Three Gorges Dam. There are armies of factory workers standing beneath heavily polluted skies. There is snow lightly outlining the narrow shelves created in deep quarries. Baichwal does a beautiful, poetic job of weaving Burtynsky’s images together with her own footage of the sites he shoots, while completely avoiding the talking-heads format. Labor is a big theme: We see people engaged in the dangerous, boring, toxic work that makes the global economy hum.
All the critical talk about the film makes much of the idea that Burtynsky is not telling the viewer what to think about the sites he depicts. I don’t know that that’s true–to my eyes, there’s not a lot of ambiguity in watching young barefoot boys in Bangladesh as they scrape oil sludge from the bottom of a disassembled tanker. Even the cleaner jobs, like the ones in the Chinese factory that opens the film, look torturously dull.
And all of this is so obviously and intimately connected to our own demand for stuff. A day after watching the movie I was stopped in my tracks by a "Made in China" label on a shirt.
I highly recommend this film and I vote for Burtynsky as a headliner in the next LOOK3!
Anyone else seen it? What’d you think?