The great American photographer Dorothea Lange said that “photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” While Edward Burtynsky’s pictures were the impetus for the feature documentary Manufactured Landscapes (2006), it is director Jennifer Baichwal whose moving images bring the environments, circumstances and people surrounding the photos to life.
Baichwal’s film moves gracefully, most notably during the dazzling eight-minute opening take, filmed with one slow dolly movement down row after row of an enormous Chinese factory. We see Burtynsky’s photographs afterward, but Peter Mettler’s cinematography gives us a better sense of scale and centers the individual. Hands toil away, assembling parts, the same rote movements day in and day out. One woman has worked at the factory for six years and can make 400 units every day without overtime, and Mettler and Baichwal’s sympathetic camera forces us to imagine what such a life must be like.
The slow, poetic documentary hesitates to include voiceover, only occasionally letting Burtynsky comment on his work. “If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves,” he says early in the film. But we never want for a clear voice guiding us through China’s computer manufacturing and electronic waste industry; Baichwal shows the way, always going for humanism when Burtynsky’s work emphasizes vastness and alienation. Burtynsky shows us a fallen wall, but Baichwal shows the men who knocked it down and how they did it.
Lange once said, “It is not enough to photograph the obviously picturesque,” and Manufactured Landscapes shoulders the burden of photographing not only the soul-crushing monotony of factory work, but also the rusted-metal ugliness of junkyards and shipyards. Billions of products start and end their lives in China, and Baichwal and Burtynsky remain devoted to illuminating the process of assembly and disassembly, to capturing that cycle and the people trapped within it.
She would later direct the more straightforwardly environmental documentaries Watermark (2013) and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018), but Baichwal rarely gets more poignant than she does in Manufactured Landscapes with China’s smog-coated skies and hyperindustrial cities. Her deft, personalizing touch gives us vital filmmaking for a moment when it seems the human species has never been closer to annihilation.
Manufactured Landscapes is available to stream on Amazon Prime, Kanopy and Tubi and for rent on Google Play and YouTube. Follow Manufactured Landscapes on Facebook and the film’s website and follow Jennifer Baichwal on Twitter and on her website.