Manufactured Landscapes Review
Edward Burtynsky is a photographer working on a grand scale. He produces large format works of incredible detail and intricacy and many are now housed in major collections around the world. No mere pictorialist, however, this grandness extends beyond the execution and to the themes themselves. His subject, as the title has it, is the ‘manufactured landscape’: the unnatural and the manmade that has resulted from human progress. Whether this be massive industrial parks or the waste they produce, the idea is always succinct and non-didactic. This is the scar we have left on nature in all its strange, beautiful and horrific ways.
In making a film about Burtynsky fellow Canadian Jennifer Baichwal has a choice as to how to approach her subject; does the document the man or his work? From the opening shot – an uninterrupted eight-minute tracking shot across an immense factory shop floor in China – it is clear that she has opted for the latter. Baichwal represents Burtynsky by representing his ideas, in effect she gets inside the artist without having to trouble us with superfluous biographical detail. If this does figure then it is solely the result of Burtynsky himself (lecture material interpolates throughout the documentary), though for the most part Manufactured Landscapes adopts stills and soundtrack to excellent effect alongside more conventional documentary footage as he gets to grips with his latest subject: capturing the rapid progress being undertaken in China, the perfect microcosm for the international situation as the country effects massive change within a limited timeframe.
Baichwal’s approach, then, is very much Burtynsky’s. Just as her deployment of rostrum photography takes us inside his works before pulling back to reveal the bigger picture – the strange geometries, the exotic colours, the sheer ambiguity of what’s in front of us (is that “e-waste” or sea weed?) – so too Manufactured Landscapes begins with the small detail before exploring its wider ramifications. As if to underline this fact we are continually unaware at first as to whom the images on-screen belong to – photographer or filmmaker? We repeatedly flit between movie and artwork, Dan Driscoll’s fine score (alternately ambient and abrasive depending on context) serving to smooth the segue. It’s a technique that allows for a seamless blending of Baichwal’s and Burtynsky’s ideas; the one complements the other so that we’re never sure where the joins meet, merely the bigger picture.
Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that Manufactured Landscapes is any way bigger or more important than the art it documents and so Baichwal’s film is best viewed as a companion piece. Not, however, that we should assume it has nothing additional to say. The one thing that Burtynsky’s work often excludes – by his own admission – is the physical human presence. Branded anonymously by identikit uniforms or mere additional shapes in his grand compositions, they never really figure as genuine individuals. Indeed, the attitudes towards work and labour are remarkably different to those once upon a time. In cinematic terms consider the factory gate ‘actualities’ of the Lumière brothers. Or take into account many of the documentaries that featured on the BFI’s recent Land of Promise DVD set that collated various non-fiction shorts from the 1930s and 1940s. What is only display there is pure celebration, for both the products being created and, more importantly, for the people who make them. Yet through Burtynsky’s eyes it is only the downsides and ill-effects which become apparent, whilst the human factor is viewed primarily as a collective “we” responsible for produces the images he so carefully documents. That opening tracking shot, for example, is there simply to show the drawn-out monotony of production line activity.
As a slight corrective, Baichwal has allowed a voice to Burtynsky’s subjects – whether those who actually figure within his works (such as the wealthy Chinese woman for whom he did a rare portrait) or those at the periphery (the foremen, managers, executives, labourers, locals and so on). This being China communication to the outside media is not always forthcoming, but then this in itself tells its own story. Indeed, Manufactured Landscapes has numerous ‘subplots’, if you will, as a result of these discussions – or lack thereof – allowing it to touch on, just as Burtynsky’s work does by association, pollution, politics, energy, oil, labour, China and so on and so on. From one photograph or prospective location Baichwal is able to tease out numerous themes.
Upon its release there was a certain critical shorthand when it came to Manufactured Landscapes too easily lumping it in with the Al Gore lecture film An Inconvenient Truth and Godfrey Reggio’s eco-doc trilogy. It’s a fairly basic association given the similar themes of both and the pretty pictures of the latter, yet in truth Baichwal’s film falls somewhere in between. Certainly connections do exist but her non-didactic manner (aping that of Burtynsky’s) and her willingness to explore rather than simply point the finger means that this particular piece comes off as both far richer and less prone to the flaws of the others. As said, it can only accompany Burtynsky’s work, or serve as an introduction, but on these terms it undoubtedly succeeds.
For such a new release it is hardly surprising that the BFI’s Region 2 handling of Manufactured Landscapes demonstrates few flaws. Presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.78:1, the print itself is excellent. It’s worth noting that any graininess to the image is wholly the responsibility of the film being shot on Super 16, otherwise what we have is clean, crisp and clear – all that we should expect in fact. The original Dolby Surround soundtrack has been downgraded slightly to DD2.0 though to little detrimental effect. Driscoll’s score and sound design are still wonderfully effective and the dialogue is perfectly clear. Optional English subtitles are also available for the Mandarin dialogue.
In terms of extras, the disc is pleasingly packed. The centrepiece is an interactive gallery of Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes and China series of works. Totalling 58 images each is available with optional commentary from Burtynsky himself as he discusses their context and background. Effectively this serves as an extension of the lecture footage within the film, albeit with the added bonus of the viewer being able select at will which particular piece they wish to view and/or hear about. Of course, a television screen is unable to match the full-scale originals, but the images are clean and the detail as apparent as we should hope for on the small screen.
Also present are a pair of interview from Richard Goddard. In the first he chats to Burtynsky and Baichwal as a pair and what’s particularly interesting about this piece is how the questions he fields apply to them both. Moreover, these aren’t the simple puff piece queries, but far more interesting than that as Goddard attempts to tease out the ideas and themes present in both Burtynsky’s work and the film as a whole. As a companion we also find a five-minute chat with Peter Mettler, the cinematography and creative consultant on Manufactured Landscapes, here discussing the collaborative nature of the piece and offering a little background information on how the project came to be.
On a similar tact we also get a recording of Baichwal’s introduction to her film at the BFI Southbank in May 2008. At fifteen minutes these provides more detail than Mettler is able to plus plenty of anecdotage. Interestingly we learn that Manufactured Landscapes began as an attempt to put together Jeff Powis’ black and white video footage captured during Burtynsky’s previous shoots in Bangladesh and China (footage that appears intermittently in the finished film) into some kind of order but soon grew into something far more ambitious and far-reaching.
Also present are six additional/extended scenes (with optional commentary by Baichwal) and all merit inclusion as they were mostly excised for length reasons. Note however that they come in non-anamorphic form though the image quality is generally fine and the original aspect ratio is adhered. Rounding off the package we also have the obligatory theatrical trailer, plus the now standard BFI booklet detailing both the film itself and Burtynsky’s career whilst also offering credits, potted biographies for the major crew members and plenty of Burtynsky’s photographs (albeit much much smaller).