As a person, with a decided stake in the health of our planet, who takes an interest in architecture, who sees environmentalism as a faith and not a hobby, who has always been swept away by the tragedy and romance of the industrial revolution, working in the industry of manufacturing in a nearly post-industrial American city, I naturally find myself drawn to art that captures the processes of global economics and development in our present day. I see factories of people and see significant labor, in its being the substance of some life, alongside its being the creation of consumer products and the manipulation of resources. Technology and the enslavement of people working in tandem to produce brilliant waste.
The film Manufactured Landscapes certainly articulates something along those lines, opening in a single slow pan inside a huge factory in China that manufactures irons. The shot gives way to one on the outside, showing the one factory alongside many others in a manufacturing zone and the spaces between them are filled with workers in yellow uniforms. This organization is a powerful image.
Photo by Edward Burtynsky Manufacturing #18
Cankun Factory, Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, 2005
The plot, if that's what you have to call it, is really the thought processes of the photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose still photos populate the film at least as heavily as the actual moving picture. One website proclaims, "Edward Burtynsky is internationally acclaimed for his large-scale photographs of nature transformed by industry. Manufactured Landscapes – a stunning documentary by award winning director Jennifer Baichwal – follows Burtynsky to China, as he captures the effects of the country's massive industrial revolution. This remarkable film leads us to meditate on human endeavour and its impact on the planet."
Human endeavor is right. Beginning with the haunting footage of virgin manufacturing, the film follows Burtynsky's natural journey through the process of creating consumer goods all the way to to the gruesome task of small scale recycling these consumer goods in villages across China and the overall eventual destruction of nature as evidenced by quarries and oil fields. The photos speak for themselves, and eloquently, as the true weight of their implication easily guides the viewer from one frame to the next with little to no narration. The film's title at once refers to both Burtynsky's depiction of the landscapes we've manufactured through our obsession with industry and also the landscapes Burtynsky manufactures with his lens.
Photo by Edward Burtynsky Manufacturing #6A
Hongqingting Shoe Factory, Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, 2004
The story is rather a classic, as surely we will tell it to the generations: The West invented factories, whose industry mined the native poor and native landscapes for resources, populating the cities and towns of Europe and America with these all destroying ever creating machines. Global racism and greed led them to export the brilliant scheme overseas, where the disparity between owners and workers could be maximized. Eventually the rich countries sold the burden of modern life, in trash and consequence to the rest of the world. This plan remains unstoppable, building a momentum which continues to ravage cultures and people. And sometimes I wonder if they will talk about our present, this moment in history as the time when it might have been contested but no one dared sacrifice their convenient luxury for integrity. I already feel like this moment has passed, the monster has escaped and it is too big for any of the nets we have lying around.
Photo by Edward Burtynsky China Recycling #8
Plastic Toy Parts, Guiyu, Guangdong Province, 2004
We have our trash heaps, our filthy streets, our dirty air and health problems. But in China, the next frontier in globalization, there are people dependent on stripping the metals out of post industrial waste by burning. People who sort out e-waste from our computers and television sets for their bread. There are people being paid to destroy their own cities in the interest of a certain large-scale dam project to increase their opportunity to modernize the isolated Chinese countryside, being tricked into bringing themselves closer to the rest of the world to progress.
This film should be playing always. Everywhere. Projected on every tv screen in every SUV on every highway in this country, on the sides of superstores, inside shopping malls, and broadcasting constantly on some cable tv channel. It is that powerful a reminder of the price of all of this.
It redeposits the weight of all of our endless campaigns to use the environment to our economic advantage by so profoundly presenting each assault in photos. By reducing collective human globality to a series of still moments, Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky force you to digest the detail, the heavy beauty and the decidedly human face of globalization's landscapes as slowly as they will eventually biodegrade. There is nothing fast or easy about it. There really shouldn't be.