Taking an observational and poetic approach to its subject matter, Manufactured Landscapes examines the rapid and all-consuming urbanization and industrialization of China, while chronicling the journey of photographer Edward Burtynsky in capturing artifacts of this change.
The film offers no concrete judgement on the images it presents, mostly preferring to communicate through image and soundscape than interviews and opinions. Director Jennifer Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler present images to their audience impartially, allowing for personal interpretation and reflection in the viewer. Meanwhile, Burtynsky’s camera captures beautiful, haunting and harsh landscapes of a country in rapid change. Some may find the documentary’s approach to by dry, with nothing of substance to say; though this viewpoint does not take into account the subtext presented in every image. There is a definite theme presented in the film, although it is never stated out loud: China, and its people, are becoming machines to capitalism. The message is unmistakeable and makes itself clear in a number of startling shots and vignettes within the film.
For one, Burtynsky’s photography does a highly effective of communicating this message. His photographs illustrate both the harsh industrialization and repressed humanity in China with a number of unforgettable images. Some which stand out in my mind include endless rows of factory workers lined up outside their respective factories, all clothed in yellow jackets outside yellow factories on a foggy morning, stretching endlessly into the distance suggesting infinity. An old Chinese woman on her front porch, her face fearful and her body hunched in submission, standing next to a pile of industrial garbage. Highways criss-crossing and suffocating each other. Factory workers clothed in bright, vibrant pink stretching across a harshly lit factory. Another depicting rows of factory workers at desks, their heads turned downward, with the exception of a single woman looking up in confusion and concern at the camera, as if she has just become aware of a new world. The photos all display a common thread: a massive industrial takeover choking out humanity by the throat, and a last-ditch effort of to recognize the people behind the machine.
Baichwall and Mettler present their subjects in a similar manner, with three particular scenes sticking out in my mind. One being the opening, nine-minute tracking shot down a hallway of endless factory machines and their thousands of workers. The shot again suggests infinity and the choking out of humanity behind the machine; very few workers even seem to notice the elaborate camera and dolly rig spanning their workspace, lost in industrial space. Another shot displays a close-up of a woman at her workstations bending wire around a piece of metal. Piece after piece she works without interruption or fault, laser-focused, working perfectly. The message is clear: this woman has become, in a very literal sense, a machine. Finally, and crushingly, the scene of villagers destroying their own village to make way for a dam, spurred on in their work by promises of payments from the government. People slaving to capitalism, destroying their own homes, to make way for more industry. Humanity, here, has disappeared completely. Industry reigns supreme.
Manufactured Landscapes is an incredible documentary and one of the few we have watched this year which I see myself revisiting many times. It is a work of masterful craftsmanship which highlights an almost post-apocalyptic world which we, ourselves, have helped create.
Written by Kevin Fermi