Manufactured Landscapes is a documentary on work of renowned artist Edward Burtynsky. Internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of “manufactured landscapes”—quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines and dams—Burtynsky creates stunningly beautiful art from civilization’s materials and debris. The film follows him through China, as he shoots the evidence and effects of that country’s massive industrial revolution.
Since art inherently is created with purpose, photographer Edward Burtynsky is something of a whistleblower, with his whistle being lost in the cacophony of clanging metal and factory noise. In piece after piece and installation after installation the Canadian visual essayist offers some alarming and stunning images. For her documentary Manufactured Landscapes, Jennifer Baichwal traveled with Burtynsky to China, uncovering some startling realities behind the façade of big business and innovation. Baichwal opens her film with a memorable eight-plus minute tracking shot of a factory floor, home to 23,000 Chinese iron workers, and the impact, scope and grandeur of that one sequence serves as a perfect analogy for the thematic aim of Burtynsky’s art.
On Blu-Ray, Burtynsky’s images are truly vivid and enlightening. But Baichwal’s film suffers somewhat in comparison. Watching Manufactured Landscapes I occasionally wondered if the film would be better served as a documentary short, since the images are what Baichwal uses to dictate the story she and Burtynsky share, with little in the way of introspection and/or exploration into the lives of the people he captures in his photography.
By never digging beyond the surface all we are left with is the work, but what incredible work that is. My mind drifted to the Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land, released two years after this film, which introduced the world to Vik Muniz, a visual artist who went to luxurious Rio de Janiero, Brazil and essentially looked over a hill and found a community of garbage pickers tucked away from the sightlines of the tourists and visitors to the famed city. In taking their discarded discoveries and then creating beautiful art with the items found in those landfills, Muniz brought a beautiful and moving perspective to the life and travails of those catadores who live, breathe and work in what most would categorize as deplorable conditions.
Edward Burtynsky’s photography is comparable to Muniz’s creations, especially in how he highlights the remnants of what global innovation and manufacturing innovation can do to a population. By shooting pictures of rampant industrial waste and garbage alongside awesome innovations such as the Three Gorges Dam, which runs the length of the Yangtze River, Burtynsky makes a powerful case that there is lasting and irreversible effects to all this unchecked growth and development. In the case of the Dam more than a million people have been displaced, their lives altered, sometimes irreparably, and all because the Dam offers, in part, easier accessibility for importing and exporting.
Burtynsky sobers us by depicting cold and colorless views of rock, rubble and churned-up land, now a constant reminder and reality for people who knew these areas as their home. Worse yet, the ecological impact of such construction and destruction is immense and in addition to spotlighting not just the massive numbers of people involved in this acceleration of manufacturing and development in China and around the world Burtynsky exposes the harm with which we may be ultimately causing our planet and our people.
For some the film will seem dry and the failure to learn much about those captured by Burtynsky’s camera lens renders Baichwal’s film somewhat shortsighted (as does lack of insight into the photographer himself). Viewing Manufactured Landscapes however forces one to consider a lot of daunting but important concepts; the evolution of commercialism, the hazards of manufacturing in such large and abundant quantities, the unfathomable disregard for the tools, people, and resources which allow these unfettered growth to continue, the impact our Need-It-Right-Now culture has upon modernized populations and communities all over the world. The movie weighs heavy and the bleak realities the film touched on during its 2007 release still ring true, if not even more so now than ever before.
Manufactured Landscapes is presented on a 25GB Blu-Ray MPEG4 AVEC Video Disc with a 1.78:1 1080p transfer. It should be noted that this differs from the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
This Blu-ray features an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack with optional English and French subtitles.
Extras here include:
· Extended Scenes – Six segments, totaling approximately 40 minutes in length, are included and provide a mix of assorted interviews and other diversions left out of the finished product. A factory worker takes viewers through her daily life, Burtynsky visits a karaoke bar, a Shanghai community reels from the effects of industrialization, a charismatic stonecutter reflects on his life, extended and excised portions of Burtynsky’s TED talk in 2005 and visuals of a town in China now completely underwater because of the Three Gorges Dam close out the deleted content.
· Discussion with Edward Burtynsky and Director Jennifer Baichwal – A 19-minute featurette discussion with journalist Richard Goddard, where Burtynsky and Baichwal expand on the themes found within the film and the approach the two artists take in communicating through their respective mediums. Goddard, in some ways, reveals more about the subject than the film does via a simple one-on-one conversation.
· Interview with Cinematographer Peter Mettler – This finds Richard Goddard once again conducting an interview with the clearly talented secret weapon behind the film’s striking and memorable images. Mettler discusses collaborating and understanding Burtynsky’s vision and the manner with which Baichwal chose to present Burtynsky’s work.
· The Theatrical Trailer for the film is included, while a trailer for Baichwal’s 2012 documentary Payback plays upon loading the Blu-Ray but is not accessible from the title menu.
While rather quiet on the inner motivations behind why Edward Burtynsky has devoted his life to this work, he is still a captivating and intriguing artist. Clearly director Jennifer Baichwal is enamored with her subject and the themes he explores with his photography, but Manufactured Landscapes succeeds in bringing the issues the photographer identifies most with into focus. He shows us an increasingly cold and disparate world where manufacturing suffocates and imposes upon the human experience with little remorse.
Be it the Three Gorges Dam, the iron factory which opens the film or any number of other locations around the world perhaps the most lasting element of Manufactured Landscapes is the awakening one has in recognizing that the world Burtynsky captures may be too far gone to save.