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Manufactured Landscapes

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)], 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 more a portrait of our changing industrial world than it is a rendering of Burtynsky as an artist, yet it continues to bring these industrial portraits back into the sphere of art.Manufactured Landscapes manages to make the political beautiful through its contemplation of the way humans have affected nature. If there is one thing the film insists upon, it is that there are no easy answers.  

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 attempt to be apolitical and in its ability to reveal not only the destructiveness of the industrial environment but also the beauty. Manufactured Landscapes was not a political call to action but rather a meditation on the world that did not ask its audience to “buy” the message the film was selling but rather to reflect on the images presented to them.

Manufactured Landscapes had a long and successful festival run after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the Toronto-City Award for best Canadian feature film; it was later also selected as one of Canada’s Top Ten films of the year in TIFF’s annual juried initiative. The film was also an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival where it was nominated for a 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.

Despite its critical success, Manufactured Landscapes received only a limited release in North America and saw limited box-office returns. The film is now distributed by the National Film Board (who co-produced with Foundry Films), as well as six international distributors in the United States and Europe. Despite its limited commercial success, Manufactured Landscapes remains highly regarded as one of the best Canadian feature documentaries of recent years. The film speaks to trenchant contemporary concerns but does so poetically rather than politically. Manufactured Landscapes continues to be admired not only for its important message but also for its astonishing beauty.
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. The beauty of Manufactured Landscapes comes from the fundamental humanity found in the film, which makes its message hard to ignore.

By: Andrea Whyte