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June 20, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes, 2005

manufactured.gifDuring the Q&A for Manufactured Landscapes, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal indicated that the idea for the film came from photographer Edward Burtynsky's comment that for every building that rises from the ground, there is a corresponding hole somewhere else where the raw materials have been mined for the construction. This idea of an overarching, interconnected, shifting equilibrium that fuels our material consumption echoes throughout Baichwal's organic rumination on the repercussions of globalization. Opening to the extended take, tracking shot of a large appliance factory in China as row upon row of visually undifferentiable materials are fabricated (in a languid traveling shot that bears the imprint of Peter Mettler camerawork, most notably in Gambling, Gods and LSD), assembled, and integrated into larger components before emerging in its immediately recognizable form - the clothes iron - the image of the factory as a metaphor for a closed cycle, seemingly self-fueled microcosmos is reinforced in the subsequent shot of scrap workers sifting through mounds of recycled materials to collect reusable metals for smelting, unearthing a battered triangular metal plate that bears the characteristic steam hole vent pattern of an iron. This theme of closely interrelated cycles of production and consumption is also reflected in a subsequent episode at a ship-breaking yard in Southeast Asia (ironically, a destination that is also featured in Michael Glawogger's ode to the worker at the turn of the century, Workingman's Death) where old commercial freighters that were once used to transport goods throughout the world are themselves recycled, and consequently, re-enter the cycle that feeds the global economy in a different capacity. But perhaps the most emblematic of this self-exploitive cycle of construction through destruction is illustrated in the implementation of Three Gorges Dam project where local residents, soon to be displaced upon completion of the dam, have been hired to demolish the houses that will be submerged by the diverted water - in essence, chipping away towards their own homelessness. This theme of dislocation is subsequently repeated in the story of a defiant elderly resident who refused to be relocated as real estate investors target her community for high-rise development. Inevitably, what emerges from Burtynsky's sublime, yet implicitly ignoble transformed landscapes is an uneasy self-reflection that exposes our own implication in perpetuating these insatiable cycles of consumption and (non)disposal, a reminder that the price of industrialization is not a finite measure, but a fulcrum point in a zero sum ecological balance.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 20, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Human Rights Watch


It's always such a pleasure to savor your burnished perspectives, Acquarello. I really like how you apply focus to the "self-exploitive cycle of construction through destruction."

Posted by: Maya on Aug 04, 2007 12:20 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Maya, if there was one thing that really struck with me about the film was how there was really no such thing as pure recycling, that no matter how efficient we try to produce things, we're still consuming and depleting the environment and only the burn rate changes. Scary thought.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 04, 2007 8:13 PM | Permalink

Oddly enough, that "scary thought" has made me more brave about my dreams. No time to waste and all that.

Posted by: Maya on Aug 14, 2007 7:40 PM | Permalink

I just saw this documentary I was very much looking forward... and was much disappointed by a very weak slideshow. There is no cinema there honestly. Except for a few shots, notably the opening sequence you mention, it's only filming a photograph exhibition, nothing more. What does the film add to the pre-existing work of this photograph? Not enough. The leap to film, could at least add a little context, some more details, more reasearched factoids about the environment.
For instance when we see a series of aesthetized ore quarry close up, a subtitle would be welcome to know what we are looking at, where we are on the planet and what "energetical print" does it correspond too.

Cinematically speaking, "Our Daily Bread" did a better job with the food industry. And Al Gore was more didactic. Even Jia Zhang-ke was more documentarist in his fiction film on the Three Gorges dam.
"Estamira" is also a great documentary on people living on a land fill in Brazil.

The zooming on polaroid enlargements doesn't give very interesting images for cinema. They could at least revisit the locations and shoot their own footage in high definition. Or else I prefer to go to the photo exhibition.

As for the message, it wasn't new. You're a scientist acquarello, you're already familiar with the Lavoisier law. What is shocking is the scarcity of certain natural resource overused in our industry. And the lethality of others for the workers. They don't even mention the asbestos issue with ship-breaking. But the really dangerous one are not nessarily the ones making the most visible landscape changes...
And they don't tell us either about the long term consequences for these landscape transfiguration, such as erosion, chemical reactions and gas emission in a dump, atmospherical and climate changes due to industrial landscape concentration...
I felt the film remained superficial, speaking of visual changes in our landscape. While there are more impressive shots to make from space, or with aerial views of various countries over a few decades.

What I'm saying is that Edward Burtynsky did a great job, but Jennifer Baichwal was lazy.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Aug 29, 2007 12:03 PM | Permalink

Hey, Harry, I guess in a sense, I agree with your observations but somewhat disagree with your conclusion. I think that Baichwal's "logic" for the film was to be a kind of channel for Burtynsky's photographs. In other words, her eye is supposed to be "transparent" or invisible and not really alter Burtynsky's vision, which is supposed to be somewhat neutral. I think she shows this explicitly in the scene where he is preparing to photograph the factory workers out in the courtyard, and you see the "real to reel" process. I do agree that the film gets a bit messy though, but that's an unavoidable consequence of trying to remain neutral, I think, which Baichwal seems to be honing in on, because Burtynsky himself has remained ambiguous about his environmental stance as well (the speech he gives in the film is probably the closest he has come to stating a manifesto on his work). Supposedly, that non-committal stand is what affords him access to some of these places (like that factory in China where they refused him access at first). But you're right, neutrality can be accomplished with a much more meticulous eye, such as Geyrhalter's work, than she shows here.

On the other hand, I like that isn't as didactic as An Inconvenient Truth or a Michael Moore film, which tends to be the kind of in-your-face documentaries that get churned out on the environment, which never succeed in converting the unconverted. In reality, I think that "perverse beauty" of a contaminated landscape is actually what attracts me as a scientist because there is a logical interplay between the conservation of matter and energy and all this "created" technology, and it's interesting to see how this waste is reframed as objet d'art by decontextualizing it (we only see the material exploitation, not the human one associated with it).

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 29, 2007 1:48 PM | Permalink

What is the "logic" of Baichwal's documentary? Is it Burtynsky's photographs or it is Burtynsky's own subject : Earth?
The former is merely a promotional trailer, or a making of for a finished product. This is not worth the attention of film critics. Then even a simple portrait was better treated cinematically in "Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time".
The latter would beg to appropriate the subject in filmic terms and go beyond the limitations of still life photoshoot (decontextualized framing for composition and graphic abstraction, intemporality, universality).
Cinema can add time to the documenting power of a photograph. So we could see how the landscape can get to this point, how long did it take in human life scale, how many people can cause this damage? Is it like that only in China or can we find this type of coal mounts in every single country in the world?
It could almost pass as an appraisal of how great is the human industry being able to manufacture so many things from just processing things from the ground. We can find these type of aesthetized shots in the commercial leaflets published by the companies themselves. Remember Resnais's Le Chant du Styrène?
We could forgive the superficiality for a coffee table book. I don't think cinema can lie like photography lies.

Even Burtynsky's neurtal stance is hardly justifiable. Let's stop infantilizing the public. We are ready to face reality and be responsible about what our daily consumption implies in environmental terms for now and the future. We don't have to pat people in the back to make sure they are not offended by a photo exhibition... What's offending is our carefree way of life.

You know that Burtynsky's snap shots could be taken anywhere in the world, with as much dramatic effect, whether there are lasting environmental issues linked to the sites. So to show an industrial landscape on such an impressive scale is not exceptional and doesn't prove anything. What's problematic is when the human activity overcome the natural cycle of Earth regeneration. And this requires figures and global analysis of the situation, not just visual "evidences".

The guy tell us how the place where they heat motherboards to recycle computers smells from miles away and make people sick. Is it too much to ask for specific pollution levels and medical datas? I could raise world awareness against the candy factory nextdoor too solely based on the smell factor...

Looking at the cubes of compressed metal spare pieces, made by starving people living on $1 a day, I was thinking of how much Western art galleries could make of it if it was signed by César, or Arman, or Tinguely... there is art in what these kids do with trash, but it's sad to think of it that way, isn't it?

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Aug 29, 2007 5:24 PM | Permalink

sorry for double posting (the second one is the final edit)

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Aug 29, 2007 5:28 PM | Permalink

Interesting question. In a sense, it is Burtynsky's photographs and the real cost of creating that shot, but you're right, the message is somewhat adulterated by this neutrality. I don't see anything inherently wrong in that though. As I mentioned earlier, I think it's a way of sending a message without ramming it down people's throats. Could it be more direct? Sure, but there's also that risk of being too direct. Finding that balance is tricky, and even though she could have pushed the fulcrum a bit further, I don't think it's a failure at all. The ideas are there, even if the execution is a bit scattershot in places.

Posted by: acquarello on Aug 29, 2007 7:51 PM | Permalink

"This is not worth the attention of film critics."

Harry, I've often had trouble with your writing and when you make statements like that, it makes me want to shun your writing. How arrogant. It seems to me whenever you're upset with a film it's because it's not the film you want it to be or the film you would have made with the subject. So why aren't you making films instead of deriding the work of others? Talk about laziness.

If this is not a film worthy of the attention of film critics, more power to it; leave it to film enthusiasts, who don't get enough their due. All of the threads you opine should be inserted into this documentary to make it worth your while would have muddied it up so much it would have bordered on the incomprehensible. As it is, its neutrality adopts the very neutrality Burtynsky strives for in his compositions. When I met him, he made it clear he wasn't trying to judge as much as witness.

As for the tension between still photography and cinema, I thought the sequence where the camera pulls out from a photograph on display said more about practices of exhibition heedless of subject matter and the commercial intravaneous support of art than anything that could have been said. I disagree with you completely, as I frequently do, that this is not effective cinema.

Posted by: Maya on Oct 15, 2007 11:12 AM | Permalink

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