MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES directed and written by Jennifer Baichwal, with Edward Burtynsky. A Mongrel Media release. 90 minutes. Opens Friday (September 29). For venues and times, see Movies, page 108. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Manufactured Landscapes opens with a monumental lateral travelling shot through a Chinese factory. Moving down an aisle, occasionally panning one way or another, it keeps going on and on and on, forcing you to ask, "Just how damn big is this factory?"
"About 500 metres long. It's big, and the shot is a full mag, about 10 minutes. Peter Mettler took two hours to set it up. When I showed it to TVO, someone said it was the perfect place to run the credits because of its length, but I soon realized that the shot only worked if it ran without credits, without anything happening in front of the image, because it was the only way to appreciate the size of the place," says director Jennifer Baichwal.
"One thing I really like about that shot is that if you pay attention, you see people quickly glancing at the camera, just for a second, then looking back to whatever job is on the bench in front of them, as if they were afraid to look for too long."
Baichwal is sitting in a room at the Intercontinental doing the film festival interview assembly line. She's a long way from 1998, when she personally called me to ask if I'd mind looking at a video of her first documentary, Let It Come Down: The Life Of Paul Bowles.
Now she has a publicist and a scheduled theatrical release for her latest film, a study of the photography of Edward Burtynsky and a document of his visit to China, a place where the industrial intrusion into the ecology is terrifyingly apparent.
"What you confront in China is the scale of the industrial revolution it's undergoing. There are factories where 90,000 people work, and you can see shift changes that involve 60,000 people. We shot in a factory where they manufacture 20 million irons a year."
The key decision was to use Burtynsky's photographs as jumping-off points for the film. He shoots scenes that should horrify us but also convey a sense of grandeur and beauty.
"Ed's pictures are seductive when you step back. It's only when you come in close that you realize all those little dots are people, and there are hundreds of them."
Manufactured Landscapes performs an interesting balancing act. On the one hand, it's about the ecological devastation of China. On the other, it's a look at the work of an artist documenting that devastation, and there's an intriguing perspective shift between the film's two points of focus.
If you focus on one story, you can miss the other, grasping either the horror of the landscapes or the beauty of the photography while missing the interplay between the two.
"I didn't want to do another film about a photographer through the artist's life. I'd already done that in The True Meaning Of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia, which was all about issues of representation. If Ed did conventional bleak pictures, they'd be didactic, but he acknowledges his own implication in the world. His pictures are about the way we're all in the world.
"China's just the most extreme place where it's happening. In Shanghai, there are no green spaces left. The nation has no environmental regulations at all.
"If I thought about it for too long, I'd never make a film."
MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (Jennifer Baichwal) Rating: NNNN
This documentary follows photographer Edward Burtynsky to China as he continues his artistic investigation of industrial incursions into nature.
There's an irony inherent in Burtynsky's work. On the one hand, he documents ecological devastation. On the other, he's a terrific photographer who finds beauty in industrial waste and is inexorably drawn to the striking colour or the intriguing composition.
The film looks at what China's industrial revolution means, and the scale of it is staggering. The monumental opening journey through a modern factory space is like an epic in a single shot.