If you are planning (you should) to go see Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary "Manufactured landscapes", which opened last week in theaters across the US after spending a year mesmerizing film festivals audiences and will soon arrive in Europe, make sure you get there in time, for nothing describes the scale and essence of today's globalized industry more tellingly than the opening scene: a seven-minutes tracking shot of the floor of a boundless Chinese factory, row after row after row of disciplined workers and efficient repetition that Stanley Kubrick could have filmed.
"Manufactured landscapes" is based on the work of photographer -- and 2005 TED Prize winner (watch his speech) -- Ed Burtynsky, whose camera has captured stunning images of man-transformed landscapes around the world. Here is the documentary's trailer:
Burtynsky is not much interested in micro: his focus is on vastness, on the scale of the environmental scars and transformations brought forth by industry, energy production and transportation. The documentary is a hybrid: it's a meditation that makes very little use of words, leaving it to images and situational sounds and noises to tell the story, and at the same time a convincing illustration of the monstrosity of today's global trade. Although Baichwal shows images from Canada, California and Bangladesh -- and makes generous use of Burtynsky's TEDPrize speech -- the movie's main character is China, the "manufacture to the world": there, Burtynsky, followed by Baichwal's cameras, has shot factories, huge container ports, quarries, the Three Gorges Dam, electronics graveyards, the rapid urbanization of Shanghai. (Another great movie, recently, has shown some of this within a fictional frame: Gianni Amelio's "The Missing Star").
Burtynsky's work (see his books) can be unsettling. He extracts beautiful, sometimes poetic images from outrageous alterations and destructions of the environment. He calls himself an artist -- not a reporter -- and refrains from judging what he photographs or from politicizing it, wanting, as he said at TED, to "make people think harder about our planet's future" without suggesting them a direction. As the film goes I find myself thinking of painters: Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dalì because, respectively, Burtynsky's photos of a computer components dump, the stacks of containers in the port of Tianjin, and the lunar shipbreaking beach of Chittagong (Bangladesh) oddly remind of their artworks.
The photographer has a rationale for aestheticizing this devastation: that's a way to gain access. Most of what Burtynsky photographs is on private land: "My work is mostly negotiation, with some photography thrown in", he said half-jokingly at the premiere in San Francisco. There is a scene in the movie where he is shown with his assistants and an interpreter trying to talk Chinese officials into opening the gates to a neverending coal yard, and the key sentence is "we will make it beautiful". Asked how he convinced factory managers to gather all their thousands of employees on a street for the picture that makes the poster of the movie (see image), Burtynsky explained that what Westerners see as a robotization of workers, the Chinese proudly consider an organizational and industrial achievement.
This discrepancy echoes throughout the documentary. It powerfully reminds us that "stuff" doesn't just happen, that it comes from somewhere, although we tend to forget or ignore it (thought of the impact of the extraction industry lately?) And it illustrates how, as we transform nature, we redefine who we are and our relationship to the planet.