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Jennifer Baichwal's cameras follow Edward Burtynsky (1955- ) as he visits what he calls manufactured landscapes: slag heaps, e-waste dumps, huge factories in the Fujian and Zhejiang provinces of China, and a place in Bangladesh where ships are taken apart for recycling. In China, workers gather outside the factory, exhorted by their team leader to produce more and make fewer errors. A woman assembles a circuit breaker, and women and children are seen picking through debris or playing in it. Burtynsky concludes with a visit to Shanghai, the world's fastest growing city, where wealth and poverty, high-rises and old neighborhoods are side by side. Written by
Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who makes art out of the least "artful" objects imaginable. Everyday items such as crates, boxes, metal containers, etc. - items which most of us perceive as utilitarian at best and dismiss as being utterly without aesthetic merit - are instead converted into glorious objects d'art by Burtynsky's camera. He achieves this result by focusing on the recurring colors and geometric patterns that are apparently ever present in the industrialized world - for those perceptive enough to spot them, that is. Even heaps of compacted trash can become objects of beauty when seen through Burtynsky's lens (but didn't we already know that from "Wall-E"?). He is particularly interested in photographing areas like mines and shipyards where Man has already made incursions into nature - which may explain why at times even the people in his pictures (i.e. the workers in those places), with their uniform clothing and robotic movements, become part of the industrial landscape.
"Manufactured Landscapes," a documentary about Burtynsky's work, has much of the feel of a "Koyaanisqatsi" about it as it dazzles us with its richly variegated kaleidoscope of images and patterns. Indeed, director Jennifer Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler capture the essence of the original photos in purely cinematic terms, as their own camera records Burtynsky and his assistant running photo shoots at a factory in China, a dockyard in Bangladesh, and the construction site at the massive Three Rivers Gorge Dam project in China. With their fluid camera-work, the filmmakers match point-for-point the beauty of Burtynsky's images. In fact, the movie opens with a stunning eight-minute-long tracking shot of a Chinese factory in which hundreds of similarly dressed workers toil away in perfectly symmetrical and color-coordinated rows.
The movie does less well when Burtynsky gets around to articulating the "themes" of his work, which, quite frankly, come out sounding confused, contradictory and decidedly half-baked at best. But it is as a purely aesthetic experience, highlighting image and form, that "Manufactured Landscapes" resonates most. In the case of Burtynsky, perhaps, a picture really IS worth a thousand words.
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