||Jennifer Baichwal opens her documentary on Canadian photographic artist Edward Burtynsky with a tracking shot around the huge floor of a factory in Cankun, China, as a small army of workers assiduously go about their assigned tasks making—well, the precise product isn’t clear (nor very important). The sequence, which goes on for some eight minutes, doesn’t break a record for longevity; after “Russian Ark,” which was shot in one long take, it’s going to be difficult for any movie to mount a significant challenge to it.
But it’s a good scene-setter for the assessment of Burtynsky’s work, which is concerned with documenting massive construction projects that literally transform the look of the earth, replacing the natural landscape with something that’s entirely a human construct. In following the artist’s footsteps as he moves from site to site, particularly in the People’s Republic as it undergoes an economic explosion, “Manufactured Landscapes,” like Burtynsky’s pictures, captures images that are at once awesome, humbling, and rather terrifying.
Among those you’ll come away from the film remembering—in addition to the factory, whose workforce is marched onto a square outside to pose in almost martial formation—are the mountain of discarded computer parts at a small town where obsolete machines are systematically disassembled to make them disgorge components that can be reused, the hulks of partially cannibalized ships sitting on shore like beached metal whales (this actually in Bangladesh), the images of urban neighborhoods being erased and replaced in the name of progress, and—perhaps most powerful—the sight of villages being torn down, brick by brick, by their own populace to make way for a huge reservoir that will be created by a monstrous dam.
Of course, Baichwal’s subject isn’t merely such monumental changes to nature brought about by industrialization and modernization, but the way in which Burtynsky elevates his photographs of them into an art form, and it does a good job of that, documenting the precision and care with which he prepares his “canvas,” and capturing the beauty of the final result as gallery-goers examine the photos, often in collage, on a museum wall.
And, of course, though the photographs may not be overtly political, what they imply about the cost of this latest industrial revolution on the natural world is undeniable. Like the black-and-white stills of factories from an earlier era belching smoke from their chimneys—the raw material of so many of Dickens’ verbal pictures—Burtynsky’s photos raise troubling questions that, in this environmentally conscious age, deserve attention. And by increasing public awareness of them (and humanizing the figures that appear in them mostly as non-individualized specks), “Manufactured Landscapes” is performing a public service—as well as being a hypnotic cinematic experience in its own right, its simultaneously soothing and unnerving effect accentuated by a relative paucity of words, Peter Mettler’s cinematography, Roland Schlimme’s editing and Dan Driscoll’s supportive score.