Manufactured Landscapes

A documentary by Jennifer Baichwal. Rated general. Opens Friday, October 20, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas and the Cinemark Tinseltown

Manufactured Landscapes opens with an extended, unedited pan shot of an endless factory floor: to a monotonous whirring drone, row after row of anonymous Asian workers in yellow jackets silently fidget with formless gadgets and parts on assembly lines. The scene goes on so long that you start thinking it must be some kind of trick film loop. Only when you finally see Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky's still photo, an overhead shot of the metropolis-sized operation with its tiny ant labourers, can you grasp the colossal scale of what you have just witnessed.

His “landscapes” , and Jennifer Baichwal's mesmerizing film, show us a universe we never think of when we plug in a circuit breaker, pick up an iron, or use countless other items that carry a Made in China sticker. But the Asian factory cities are just one of the hidden worlds he reveals in his photographs. Manufactured Landscapes traces his work from the gaping quarries and gravel pits chipped out of mountainsides here in Canada to China and its massive thrust toward industrialization. In the Asian country, we follow him as he shoots Mount Everests of discarded computer parts; bleak tableaux of residents reducing entire towns to rubble to make way for the Three Gorges Dam; and, in what must truly be the most apocalyptic vista in China, coal fields' hellish black pyramids spread as far as the eye can see. As Burtynsky puts it: “If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves....Maybe the new landscape of our times is the landscape we destroy.” 

With sparse commentary from Burtynsky himself, Manufactured Landscapes proves the cliché that pictures speak louder than words. It projects the alarming scale of our planet's environmental crisis on a much more visceral level than talkier docs like An Inconvenient Truth.

Spread across the big screen, Burtynsky's high-resolution photos are all the more jaw-dropping in scale than they are hanging on a gallery wall. Baichwal's film adds meaningful context and, more importantly, gives intimate, human dimension to his landscapes: witness the close-up of one woman's fingers speedily winding wires and inserting tubes into a tiny circuit breaker, or workers in masks sorting through a sea of scrap metal. We also get insight into the tactics Burtynsky must use to get access to the sites he shoots. When trying to get skittish Chinese officials to let him photograph those ungodly coal fields, his translator pulls out one of the books and points out the picturesque quality of his boss's work.

There is an undeniable eerie beauty to Burtynsky's panoramas, and his art is becoming highly coveted by collectors. But even though the artist insists he's “not trying to glorify it, nor am I trying to damn it” , his photographs, and this film, speak of nothing but our impending doom””in terrifying biblical scale. That's not something this viewer could bear hanging on the living-room wall, but it is urgently necessary film-viewing just the same.