CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 12 . . . .February 8, 2008
Jennifer Baichwal (Director). Peter Starr, Gerry Flahive, Nick de Pencier, Daniel Iron & Jennifer Baichwal (Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2007.
86 min., 28 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153E 9906 443.
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
Manufactured Landscapes has won numerous awards, including "Best Documentary" at the 2007 Genie Awards, and after viewing the film, it is easy to see why. It is both visually stunning and thought-provoking.
Edward Burtynsky photographs nature, but the "natural" landscapes he depicts are not open skies, soaring mountains, or blissful pastoral scenes. One could say that his landscapes are "un-natural"; he states that "the landscape of our time is the landscape that we change," and nowhere is that change more apparent than in China, a country undergoing yet another great leap forward. Typically, the word "industrialization" brings to mind the "dark satanic mills" of nineteenth-century Europe. However, the factories Burtynsky photographs – garment factories, small appliance assembly lines, and electronic component manufacturing operations – are clinically pristine. Workers look clean, adequately fed, and uniform-clad. Lined up in rows, workers in an electronics facility, clad in bright yellow, look like a field of sunflowers, although their dispositions are anything but sunny as they listen to admonitions about production faults and behavioral reminders ("Don't laugh. Don't talk.") during an early morning outdoor staff meeting.
What is truly amazing is the transformation of mountains of industrial waste into photos of startling beauty. The soleplate of an iron, lying in a heap of to-be-recycled metals, is re-visioned as a new appliance. Labels and bits of coloured paper add vibrant splashes to piles of discarded box-card. Compacted cars shine in cubes of metal. But, there is an environmental cost being paid as this new industrial revolution moves forward, and this is Burtynsky's real concern. We view film footage of rural villagers laboriously smashing up computer components to extract rare metals, even though the result of their labour is that toxic heavy metals find their way into the local water table, and chemical gases can be smelled for miles away. China is working overtime finding ways to extract the "black liquid" necessary to drive the engines of their expanding economy, and Burtynsky muses about how long that country can continue to sustain the pace of growth.
The Three Gorges Dam, which will bring on-line huge amounts of hydro-electric power, will surely be a better solution than the continued use of coal-fired generators. Yet, the dam is built at huge human and environmental cost. Although the landscape looks as if destroyed by wartime bombing, Burtynsky's photos are magnificent. Similarly, in urban China, whether it's photographs of laundry hanging on lines in a tenement or dancers gyrating at a glitzy nightclub, the colour or composition of Burtynsky's photos is beautiful.
The film ends with pictures at an exhibition; as art gallery patrons view the results of his journey to China, Burtynsky ponders his role in the politicization of art. His photos of a world changed by industry are the visual statement of his belief that "we don't want to give up what we have, but we are creating problems that are deep." There is a price to be paid, and some day, our world will pay it.
Manufactured Landscapes is a lengthy film, and teachers need to preview it in order to select just how they will use the film. However, it has numerous curricular connections: art teachers will appreciate both the numerous photos depicted in the movie, as well as a stills gallery with commentary by the photographer, while social studies teachers will find thought-provoking material in the scenes of factories, environmental impact, and life in today's China. The movie also has optional French sub-titles. In all, Manufactured Landscapes offers plenty of "added value" to this single-disc DVD.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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