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This is a documentary that came out of the splendid work of a Canadian
landscape photographer whose interest has long been in the ravages left
on earth by the excavations or buildings of man. It begins with a vast
factory complex crammed with people making a great variety of little
things, parts of high-tech equipment presumably; it isn't really made
very clear. The emphasis is on how big the place is and how many people
are there and how they're herded around outside in little yellow
jackets. The film also shows the photographer working on a tall
structure to do a still of the array of these people outside the
factory, and talking with his crew as he does so. This is a world of
relentless industrialization. It's a relief at least to know these
soulless images aren't going to be presented without a human voice, as
is the case in Nikolaus Geyrhalter's gleefully cold documentary about
the food industry, 'Our Daily Bread.' 'Manufactured Landscapes'
contains images of people scavenging e-waste and a town (many towns,
really) being wiped out by the biggest dam ever, with a single plangent
trademark shot of a little girl in the rubble of her own neighborhood
eating out of a bowl using a pair of chopsticks almost bigger than she
is. Some of these scenes, the ones with miserably underpaid workers
slaving in dangerous and toxic places, might have been shot memorably
by the premier engagé photographer Sebastião Salgado. But this
photographer isn't as interested in seeing people up close. His
orientation places him somewhere in between Salgado and the cold,
neutral modern landscape photographs of Lewis Baltz.
All this happens in China, of course, though there is earlier footage in black and white of the photographer working around a large shipbuilding site in Bangladesh. It is backed up by music in a New Age industrial style that is alternately soothing and oppressive. There are a good many stills of the photographer's work--or were some of them made by the film crew? It isn't made clear.
Edward Burtynsky is the name of the photographer. We see people wandering through exhibitions of his beautiful work-- big dramatic prints of carefully composed view camera color images with a handsome glow. The irony is that Burtynsky makes such unique and glorious pictures of places that are essentially blighted, and to the ordinary eye are dispiriting and boring. He admits himself that he takes no political stand. When we are able to compare his images with those caught by the roaming eye of the film's cinematographer Peter Mettler, Burtynsky's work almost amounts to a kind of glorification, and hence falsification. But he is showing us places that, if we look closely, reveal their full dark story of ravage and neglect no matter how finely crafted the photographs of them may be.
Logically, but not entirely fortunately, it is Burtynsky whose voice-overs narrate most of the film as it ranges over various sites. Burtynsky's "epiphanies" may have inspired his decades of fine work, but they amount to nothing but truisms about how we're changing the planet irreparably; are dependent on oil, which will run out; that China has come into the game of massive industrialization late, and so may burn out early with the depletion of fossil fuel. The interest of 'Manufactured Landscapes' would be much greater if there were perceptive new ideas to accompany it. The reasons for watching it are two: to see glimpses of Burtynsky's work and the raw materials, the spaces he visits and chronicles so beautifully; and to observe scenes from the vast, awesome, daunting, and rather horrifying industrialization of modern China.
Because of the limitations of the narration, the idea of the title 'Manufactured Landscapes' feels insufficiently developed. It even seems a misnomer. New landscapes they are, but they are the byproduct of manufacturing rather than "manufactured." 'Landscapes of Waste' or 'Wasted Landscapes' might be better titles. There is much room left by this documentary for more intellectually searching work on film about this intriguing subject; and those who want to know more about Edward Burtynsky might do better to peruse his books or exhibitions.
This is the most recent addition to a new wave of educational
documentaries like "The Corporation" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." Its
commentary is clear and unwavering as is the breathtaking cinematic
style of this well crafted feature. The film manages to impose a
powerful sense of how unsteady our world is as we rush toward an
environmentally unsustainable future at lightning speed - while showing
us the terrifying beauty in our pursuit of progress.
Truly a remarkable accomplishment which must be seen by all who care about the world we leave to our children. Bravo!
NB - this is also the only film (of 8) at Varsity theaters (Toronto) boasting a stick-on tag which reads... "To arrange group viewings please contact...." ... a further testament to the popularity and importance of this gem.
My bet... an academy award nomination for best documentary.
I have been an admirer of Edward Burtynsky's work for years, and it was
such a pleasure to be able to see the man at work, thanks to Jennifer
Baichwal's documentary. The severe beauty of the ship-breaking yard in
Bangladesh, the stone quarry in Vermont, the enormous assembly plant in
China, the beleaguered old neighbourhoods in Shanghai that are just
waiting to be torn down: these landscapes are captured so well by the
photographer and the filmmaker.
At times I thought of old TV documentaries on abandoned coal mines and plastic-mold factories; the sort of stuff I grew up watching. Burtynsky's work has the great value of pointing out how the industrial activity has only shifted to Asia, it has not stopped. The strangest scene for me was the computer scrap-yard somewhere in China--the waste had a threatening air about it, while the workers were very jovial.
Mesmerizing, breathtaking and horrifying, this hauntingly beautiful
film is the "Apocalypse Now" without fiction. Slow in pace, quiet in
mood, it gives good glimpses of the poisoned patches of Earth that may
well be signs of an inevitable doom.
There is no doubt in my mind -- the nature is plagued and we are the disease. Greed, the very essence of humanity that drives evolution and progress, has turned us into something like cancer, on its way to consume the host and die with it...
Manufactured Landscapes is quite an unforgettable viewing experience - at least I'll never regard my toaster and iron the same way again.
This film follows Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky to China where
he documented the grim scale of Chinese industry and it's impact on
the... landscape, obviously! Burtynsky's fascinating photos of
industrial activity and waste have been exhibited widely, I saw the
local exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario two years ago and came
home with both the exhibition book of the same name and one of his
framed 'quarry' prints. Now I've seen Jennifer Baichwal's film on the
same topic. I think they've covered the media bases. Perhaps a
role-playing game for PS3? So, thumbs up or down? Well, a thumb in each
direction I think. The film gave visual context to Burtynsky's photos,
which was helpful because sometimes you just can't believe that his
images come from the real world. It also expanded them by capturing
more of the human presence, which is often incidental in his photos.
The film opened with a five minute tracking shot (shades of Robert
Altman) along rows of bustling manual assembly lines. The scene showed
both the monumental scale of China's industries and the massive and
repetitive human activity that makes it possible. Watching a worker
assemble a small electrical component at lightning speed and then later
watching peasants tapping the metal off of computer chips for recycling
reminded me that industry grinds down people as well as landscapes.
There were some clever juxtapositions that highlighted the economic divide in China. The remark "this is an open kitchen", for example, started while we watched a peasant's medieval outdoor stove in use but concluded while we watched the speaker, a Shanghai Realtor, show off her open-concept luxury kitchen.
The down side? Well, the film kind of dragged on (how many slow tracking shots can we sit through in a night?) and the sound track was excessively "industrial" and often grating.
Still, Manufactured Landscapes is a mind-expanding film that illuminates and expands on Edward Burtynsky vision and trusts the viewer to interpret it.
I have mixed feelings on this film. On the one hand the images are
stunning, desolate and beautiful. The photographer proves there can be
beauty even in ecological devastation, which is really a foreign
concept. The segments on the Three Gorges Dam and the shipbreaking
beach in Bangladesh are fascinating.
On the other hand, the film often is a slide show of images without narration. When that happens it seems very, VERY slow. I know the director probably wants us to be able to absorb these images without being distracted by narration, but it makes for a mind numbing experience.
In the "special features" there was lots of fascinating narration - if they had added this to the film I would have enjoyed it more.
This felt a little like a companion piece to Wall-E briefly in the
beginning; images of overwhelming waste, even nice compacted cubes of
it a la that film. Then later it sort of connected for me with a book I
recently read called "Lost on Planet China" by J. Maarten Troost,
although that book wants to be a comedic monologue more than a
This film is humorless. Which is fine, but the notion that it is not a polemic, or even the photos alone are not political, is quite unfair, even if I do tend to lean the same way as the filmmaker's viewpoint. I understand that some people feel China is one huge Pittsburgh/Sheffield and that "we" are defiling our Mother Earth. I'm not entirely sure I buy that though.
I'm always a little suspicious of "the old ways are best" thinking. I'm generally pretty happy with increasing life-spans, and I know that change comes with costs. Ideally you minimize the damage, but I wondered how these filmmakers would depict the birth of a child. Notice the woman's body beforehand, but now in manufacturing a child, look at the gross distension of the innards, and once the child is finally delivered, observe the impact on the once-vibrant young couple as they struggle through endless hours of sleeplessness and toil with the mound of waste produced by just one child.
For some reason, I also expected the photography to be more artistic, a la "The War Photographer" (a film that I would recommend if you liked this one, or even if you just finished this one). I liked one of the Chinese people, examining a picture of him and remarking how the scale of the shot was so large that there was no detail. Nothing intimate.
Anyways, an interesting albeit strongly biased view of China...just the number of women workers in different positions was fascinating. Including the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" with the either attractive or repelling (or both for me?) Diana Lu, extravagant real estate agent, was kind of weird to me. Especially when contrasted with omitting the stonecutter, who was in the deleted scenes, well all choices are loaded.
I'll look for the photography book at the library, some of those shots with a green oval inside a strip mining pit show briefly in the film I wanted to understand more. I assume enhanced via filters/processing. Also the Bangladesh ship graveyard...while maybe meant to be a cautionary scaring about our wasteful ways was nonetheless compelling, like having a ringside seat to the La Brea Tar Pits back when the dinosaurs were laying down for extinction.
The legacy of China's rapid growth will be understood long after I am gone, and I'm not so sure that Eve and Wall-E will be weeping over the Great Wall crumbled down to build our great-great-great automaton grandchildren.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I had heard this film was a study of a landscape photographer's art by
presenting the beauty in man's deconstructing the natural landscape. It
certainly showed the laborious activities to find locations, setup
shots, and capture stark images whose final destinations were art
studios worldwide. Put together in moving pictures it is truly a horror
This film oozes by you supplanting the shock of ghastly images with gentle waves of a wonderful industrial soundtrack that guides you like on slow moving river. Each sequence stands on its own, but in combination you get deeper and deeper into the feeling of overwhelming inevitability. There are few words, this allowing the grandeur in what is shown to preach in its own way. An awful, massive factory filled with human automata who live in hopelessly lifeless dormitories. Individuals dying early while rummaging for recyclable scraps in mountains of our E-waste. The birthing of gigantic ships and their destruction by hand in giant graveyards. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest industrial project in human history and likely for all time. The time lapse as a city dies and is simultaneously reborn into a replica of modernity that purposefully destroys all relics of the culture that was.
The most terrifying image for me was a dam engineer explaining that the most important function of the dam was flood control. The shot shifts to the orchard behind the spokesperson where you witness the level of the last flood by the toxic water having eaten the bark from the trees, demonstrating that nothing but the most hideous vermin could be living in the waters.
The obvious not being stated is far more powerful than your normal preachy Save the Earth documentaries. The artist Edward Burtynsky explains the method wonderfully. 'By not saying what you should see many people today sit in an uncomfortable spot where you don't necessarily want to give up what we have but we realize what we're doing is creating problems that run deep. It is not a simple right or wrong. It needs a whole new way of thinking'. The subtlety of this descends into an either/or proposition, but the film images scream that the decision has very much been made in favor of the dark side.
Though never stated directly in any way, as the waves of what you witness wash away from your awareness and you contemplate, there is only one conclusion possible we are doomed. The progress of mankind that is inexorable from our natures leaves behind carnage that this artist finds terrifying beauty in. What he is actually capturing are the tracks of we the lemmings rushing unconsciously toward our own demise. Unlike most films with environmental themes, this one ends with no call to arms. It argues basically what's the point, but makes certain you place the blame properly on all of us equally.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the most confronting documentary I have ever seen. It was a
simple and breathtaking view of a beautiful idea. Based on photographs
of the hidden industrial landscapes centred around the modern
industrial growth of China, Edward Burtynsky brings to life confronting
issues that we so easily chose to ignore.
Taking no political sides, this movie is a neutral moving picture of realities that our western societies chooses not to educate us about - the by-products of economical growth, the externalities paid by citizens of the lesser-developed communities, the source of our comforts and the wastes of our consumer lifestyles.
Amazing, heart-breaking, impossible to ignore. This is a challenging journey but one worth taking - please stop staying ignorant and at least see these photographs of truth without feeling any pressure to take a standing to these issues. 10/10 definitely!
Anything that exposes photographer Edward Burtynsky's socially
important and beautiful work to more people is worthwhile.
That said, for me the documentary itself, while very interesting and well made, simply can not compete with the enormous power of Burtynsky's own images. Indeed the best moments in the film are when we see the photos themselves.
While some of what we see of the photographer"s process is interesting, and there is some provocative gentle implied questioning of the distance and lack of humanity in Burtynsky"s photographs, I did not learn much more about the man and his work then when I first happened upon his seeing his photos at a gallery, and then bought several books of his images.
A solid documentary, but not as amazing one.
On the other hand, the extras, particularly the lengthy photo gallery where Brutynsky talks in detail about many of his great images from the film is far more powerful and interesting, and it's absolutely worth getting the DVD for that feature.
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