Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal likes to look to other artists for her documentary portraits. In 1998, she focused on a writer in
Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles . In 2002 a photographer grabbed her attention in
The True Meaning Of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams Appalachia . Now for her latest film, she once again looks to the work of a photographer for her documentary, this time its Edward Burtynsky and the film is
Manufactured Landscapes. Baichwal opens Manufactured Landscapes with an exceedingly long and slow tracking shot through what appears to be a Chinese factory. You grow impatient with the shot and this prompts you to think why is she letting it go on for so long? Then you realize, thats her point. The extended length of her shot makes you think and what you start to think about is the sheer scale of what you are seeing. The factory is immense and the number of workers is huge. So the point she makes is similar to the point photographer Edward Burtynsky wants to make with his photos: they both want to force you to look at something that you might only give a passing glance to and consider the implications of what you are seeing.
A manufactured landscape in Manufactured Landscapes (Zeitgeist Films)
In The True Meaning of Pictures , Baichwal dissected the work high-art photographer Shelby Lee Adams who stages what some consider exploitative portraits of Appalachian poverty. For Manufactured Landscapes , Baichwal again looks to how a photographer creates his art but she sees less exploitation in Burtynskys work. Although she does show how he is quite willing to manipulate an image to get what he wants. Early on, Baichwal documents a shoot Burtynsky does at a Chinese factory where he has all the yellow-clad employees line up in a certain configuration outside their yellow factory buildings. This is an instance of Burtynsky manufacturing the landscape he wants, and Baichwal conveys a certain irony in this. She also captures the irony of a factory where lovely yellow flowers are realistically painted around the buildings.
But for the most part, Burtynsky is content to shoot landscapes as they exist: massive construction sites, factory floors, industrial waste and land scarred by mining. Repeatedly, Burtynsky insists that hes not trying to make a political statement with his images of the ravages of industrializtion. He instead claims that he just wants to show it "how it is."
Baichwal seems to want to imitate this tone in her film by showing Burtynsky and his work just as they are. She too seems to be trying to not make a statement about whats going on but rather to just present it. Yet this is disingenuous on both their parts. The insistence that neither the film nor the photos are political seems nave. Of course they are political, of course they make the viewer consider what they are seeing in a broader social context. The effect that Baichwal wants her film to have is evidenced by her choice of music, which is generally a dull, ominous drone that sounds like a grim warning. If she had cut her images to no music or to a cheery happy beat, maybe then she could claim that she didnt want to manipulate a concerned reaction. Theres nothing wrong with wanting to make a statement, but to insist that you are not trying to stir a response is insulting to the viewer.
Manufactured Landscapes (Zeitgeist Films)
But what Baichwal does capture for viewers is Burtynskys large scale photos, which are stunning. There is a beauty in their precision and symmetry, as well as something shocking about their content. We may know that there are huge factories in China or that China is growing at an astounding rate, but nothing hits those ideas home like Burtynsky's images. So on that level the film is remarkable.
But the problem is that Baichwal doesnt go beyond that. She doesn't really let us see the artistic process Burtynsky goes through to get his images. We see a lot of footage of him setting up the shots and traveling to locations and marveling at what he sees, but the film tends to just show us his art rather than exploring it or what drives him. No one in the film talks about his photos or the impact that they have. Nor is there much discussion about what these images are of and what these images mean, or what Burtynskys responsibility may be in documenting them. There is just a morose sense that So I'm not arguing for talking heads interviews, it would be nice to hear more from the artist himself.
When Baichwal focuses in on small details (mostly of people at work, and the contrasts between the have's and the have not's) her film shows signs of creating a life of its own. But too often Baichwal just tries to create a cinematic equivalent of Burtynskys still images rather than a documentary on the artistic process of Burtynsky himself. So the end result is a film that would be better as a coffee table book.
Manufactured Landscapes (unrated) serves up impressive images of how humans are changing their landscapes and there is definite power to these images. But in Baichwals hands I can see no convincing argument of why this should be made as a film. She has an occasional playful momentas when she cuts from Burtynsky setting up a photo to the photo on a wall where the camera pulls back to reveal people looking at the image. In a shot like that she suggests a relationship between an artistic work and someone in a gallery, but that moment is fleeting and never fully explored. My recommendation: seek out Burtynskys work rather than this film.
Companion viewing: Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles ; The True Meaning Of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams Appalachia , Powaqqatsi -----