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Manufactured Landscapes

Year: 2006
Language: English, Cantonese, Mandarin
Format: 35mm/Colour and Black and White
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Producer: Jenninfer Baichwal, Daniel Iron, Nick de Pencier
Cinematographer: Peter Mettler
Editor: Roland Schlimme
Sound: Dan Driscoll, Peter Mettler, Roland Schlimme, David Rose, Jane Tattersall
Music: Dan Driscoll
Cast: Edward Burtynsky
Production Company: Mercury Films/Foundry Films/National Film Board of Canada
Canadian Distributor: Mongrel Media

Manufactured Landscapes explores the work of famed environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky as he travels to China and Bangladesh to photograph the nature of industrial manufacturing and waste. The film premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and was immediately admired by both critics and audiences. Acclaimed documentary director Jennifer Baichwal follows Burtynsky through his Eastern journey, adopting his attitude of revealing the reality of the human-created industrial landscapes, rather than passing judgment on their existence. Burtynsky shies away from didacticism and instead asks the observer to consider the issues at hand in his photographs. The film becomes a powerful meditation on industrialization and human waste as we see the world through Burtynsky’s lens. Burtynsky asks his audience to truly look at what he presents rather than agree or disagree with his motivations.

The film opens with a ten-minute tracking shot of a factory in China. As the camera slowly moves past the hundreds of workers at their assembly line stations and mechanical ambient noise fills the soundtrack, one cannot help but be reminded of the famous grocery store shot in Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout va Bien (1972). The cinematography by Peter Mettler (Family Viewing (1987), Artist on Fire: Joyce Wieland (1987), Picture of Light (1994)), echoes the tone of Burtynsky’s photographs, as Mettler’s camera quietly captures both the mundane and the beautiful in the industrial landscape. These live-action shots of manufacturing in Asia are complemented by shots of Burtynsky’s photographs in their gallery spaces, as well as interviews with Burtynsky and several of the Asian workers as he interacts with his subjects and discusses his process and product. The film is more a portrait of our changing industrial world than it is a rendering of Burtynsky as an artist, but it consistently allows space for both approaches to his work. The film does not limit itself to environmental concerns on a local level but rather connects audiences with the other side of the world as Burtynsky explores the global human footprint. Showing audiences the face of industry in China and Bangladesh and the actual dumping ground for most of their North American waste has served to open people’s eyes to the consequences of that waste, not only its effect on the environment but also on the human condition of those living in these industrial areas.

Manufactured Landscapes struck a chord with critics and audiences. Some hailed the film as the most important to see that year due its strong and unsettling message. The film was often associated with An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Al Gore himself endorsed Baichwal’s work, calling it: “An extraordinarily beautiful, insightful, touching and thought-provoking movie.” While the two films both dealt with ecological issues and attempted to change the way people think about how humans interact with the environment, Manufactured Landscapes was a very different project, both in its refusal to overtly address the political context of its images and in its ability to reveal not only the destructiveness of the industrial environment but also its disturbing, eerie beauty.

Manufactured Landscapes had a long and successful festival run after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the award for best Canadian feature film; it was later selected as one of Canada’s Top Ten films of the year in TIFF’s annual initiative. The film was also an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival where it competed for the Grand Jury Prize. Manufactured Landscapes went on to collect numerous awards, including the 2007 Genie for best Canadian documentary film, best feature documentary and best Canadian film from the Toronto Film Critics Association, the Al Gore Reel Current Award at the Nashville Film Festival, best Canadian documentary at both the Atlantic and Calgary film festivals, and best feature documentary at the 2007 Riverrun International Film Festival.

Manufactured Landscapes remains highly regarded as one of the best Canadian feature documentaries of recent years. It continues to be admired not only for its important message but also  for its astonishing and troubling  beauty.

By: Andrea Whyte