DVD, directed by Jennifer Baichwal
In some ways watching Manufactured Landscapes made me think of another famously slow documentary, Baraka. But at least in that 1992 film — a montage of stunningly rich moving images of the modern world — director Ron Fricke (cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi) uses a combination of time-lapse photography and energetic music to help keep the viewer awake. Manufactured Landscapes, which showcases the large-format photography of Edward Burtynsky, assumes that being either a fan of the photographer or a Sinophile is reason enough to sit through the film.
Manufactured Landscapes opens with a painfully slow scene of the inside of a Chinese factory. The camera pans down the factory's endless aisles while workers busily produce the stuff that satiates global consumer appetites. Then we are outside, on the factory grounds, gazing out over a stream of black-haired factory workers, so long that it fades into the smog in the distance.
"The new landscape of our time is the one that we change ... in the pursuit of progress," Burtynsky says.
Without much narrative, the film introduces us to a variety of such landscapes, including images of dusty cities being dismantled brick by brick in a soon-to-be-flooded area near the Three Gorges Dam project, a sprawling Shanghai with its modern high-rises and dilapidated low-rises and a village whose inhabitants scavenge the valuable metals from spent computer parts, known as e-waste.
Burtynsky insists that his photos neither celebrate nor damn his subject matter: They "just show it as it is." Nonetheless, there are telling moments in the film when Burtynsky's assistant pays people to pose for the artist's photos. I couldn't help but wonder how the photographer's images are themselves partly manufactured, and how that conflicts with the just-the-facts portraits of a world in flux he claims to be showing us.
Admittedly, Burtynsky's photos of natural landscapes that have been transmogrified by cities and industry are seductively beautiful. And having lived in China for over two years, I'm always excited to get a glimpse of places usually off limits to foreigners. But the film is an empty shell. The combination of An Inconvenient Truth-style shots of Burtynsky lecturing about his work, the artist's photographs hanging in a gallery somewhere and footage of him shooting on location, mostly in China but sometimes in Bangladesh, never gels. Even if you know very little about modern China, Manufactured Landscapes won't do much to deepen your understanding. Yes, China's population of 1.3 billion is unfathomably large, Shanghai is an enormous metropolis with a shocking wealth gap and the Three Gorges Dam project is an even bigger endeavor than the construction of the Great Wall, but these things just scratch the surface of what makes China so interesting.
I expected more than oohing and aahing from a serious documentary. Reading an insightful book on the Middle Kingdom, like China Wakesby Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife team Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryll Wuddun, and then Googling some of Burtynsky's disturbingly beautiful photographs will save you a couple of bucks at the video store and might actually teach you something useful.