Ten Square Miles

An Environmental Activism Resource

Category: Manufactured Landscapes

Manufactured Landscapes Response

Personally, I found this film refreshing from most documentaries; the use of a more artistic approach, rather than the more journalistic approach that seems to drown the documentary genre, I felt more engaged with the material of the film as not just a member of the audience but also as a critique of the film and photography, but perhaps this engagement might merely be the result of my background in art history. The artistic approach is also, however, what I believe to be the film’s greatest weakness; I am unsure how accessible the film can be when a base knowledge of fine arts remains necessary for full and proper engagement, and, while the images themselves hold a strong visual impact and the filming retains a certain honesty and candidness, one wonders how the lack of such would alter interpretation. Regardless, the film serves as a strong retrospective on the industrial complex of the world that simplifies, yet not overly, the nature-technology contrast by suggesting, as shown by the title, that we have opted for the replacement of nature with the manufactured world.

I have a strong appreciation for both Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal for their artistic prowess. Burtynsky’s use of repetition and the vanishing point work tremendously to, in tandem, deliver powerful imagery that replicates and instills the notion of infinity through the overexposure of the horizon; it’s easy to think of the industrial complex as massive and huge, perhaps even infinite, but to visually capture the idea with real-world material generates a more shocking and disorienting retrospect on the industrial. Baichwal’s cinematography achieves a similar effect; also utilizing repetition, shots such as the nine minute tracking opening control tempo and address our assumptions of the scale we consider the industry. Juxtaposed with the social actors’ interviews which regard things such as the Three Gorges Dam as merely work, Baichwal’s cinematography highlights the sort of pervasive attitude that led us here: a certain numbness and disconnection between our own actions and the environment.

Other than the aesthetical details of the film, I enjoyed the way the documentary was structured. The attitude that Burtynsky takes towards the environment, that it simply encompasses our lives as humanity on earth, becomes accentuated by the structure of film, dissecting the industrial complex into three relationships with nature, humanity, and culture. Even during processes like recycling, the amount of environmental damage is alarming, such as the tainting of water by the toxins released through the heating of recycled motherboards. The effects on humanity, and not simply the fact that immense water supplies have become, to a certain degree, unusable resulting in the importation of bottled water, but also jobs that endanger the lives of others: the workers at the shipwrecking yards was the most alarming moment of the whole film to me. That the life expectancy of the worker rarely exceeded thirty proved reminiscent of slave statistics in Brazil during Portuguese occupancy. Lastly, cultural endangerment was an aspect of this issue I haven’t even considered; in fact, it appears odd to me that we would throw away the past in search of progress. I think the last section forces us to consider what life would be without culture, and would that even be a life that we would want; more often than not, I think we would conclude no.

Manufactured Landscapes Film Response

The documentary film Manufactured Landscapes by Jennifer Baichwal highlights the expansion of human technology and the industry with the effects it has on the natural world. The film was released in 2006 by Zeitgeist Films. It does so by following the photographer Edward Burtynsky and documenting his work. There are many shots of Burtynsky taking the actual photographs, complimented by the actual still photographs captured on Super-16mm film. His photos are of landscapes that have been drastically changed due to human waste and advancements, such as garbage dumps, old ship yards, and factories. The film is very observational because the subject is the landscapes but also Burtynsky. While people are asked to be moved and such throughout the film, it is Burtynsky who asks, and Baichwal merely captures the result on camera. It also has tones of an expository documentary, but it has limited voice- over, trying to show the audience rather than tell. It also leaves a very vague intention and feeling of what to do next.

The film is structured around the journey of Burtynsky through China to various locations, where he is shown taking photographs. The film often transitions by showing a photo and zooming out to illustrate the scale of the prints. It also enables the viewer to see how Burtynsky saw his subject and how the photo turned out. His photos are usually quite detailed and do show how the world has become very industrialized. The biggest strength of the film is the long opening shot of the factory workers. The slow, tracking shot amazes the viewer with the

length of the factory. Except for this shot though, there weren’t any other shots that stood out. It was an average documentary in terms of how it was filmed. Due to less than interesting film techniques, it seemed to drag on much longer than the runtime of 1:30 would usually seem. Other weaknesses include the fact that it is barely informative; I could’ve learned more from reading a few articles and looking at photos or videos than watching this film. It seemed more of an advertisement for Burtynsky than anything else. When discussing Damnation, people thought that it was very sponsored and had shots that were there for advertising. The difference is that I think Damnation presented a problem and conveyed information, as well as how we can correct the mistakes. Manufactured Landscapes just showed a photographer taking photos about a problem many people already know about. It also didn’t even give advice on how to stop polluting the earth.

I personally believe that this film was the weakest one we have viewed so far, even more so than An Inconvenient Truth. I was against that film because it was essentially all data, however, Manufactured Landscapes did nothing for me. As I said before it seemed like a 1:30 advertisement for Burtynsky because it only showed these landscapes, and not the solution or steps we can take for improvement. It is opened ended, which can lead to discussion and more involvement by just showing the problem, but I thought it was a pointless film that didn’t even inform me of the ever growing manufactured landscapes.

Manufactured Landscapes

Taking an observational and poetic approach to its subject matter, Manufactured Landscapes examines the rapid and all-consuming urbanization and industrialization of China, while chronicling the journey of photographer Edward Burtynsky in capturing artifacts of this change.
The film offers no concrete judgement on the images it presents, mostly preferring to communicate through image and soundscape than interviews and opinions. Director Jennifer Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler present images to their audience impartially, allowing for personal interpretation and reflection in the viewer. Meanwhile, Burtynsky’s camera captures beautiful, haunting and harsh landscapes of a country in rapid change. Some may find the documentary’s approach to by dry, with nothing of substance to say; though this viewpoint does not take into account the subtext presented in every image. There is a definite theme presented in the film, although it is never stated out loud: China, and its people, are becoming machines to capitalism. The message is unmistakeable and makes itself clear in a number of startling shots and vignettes within the film.
For one, Burtynsky’s photography does a highly effective of communicating this message. His photographs illustrate both the harsh industrialization and repressed humanity in China with a number of unforgettable images. Some which stand out in my mind include endless rows of factory workers lined up outside their respective factories, all clothed in yellow jackets outside yellow factories on a foggy morning, stretching endlessly into the distance suggesting infinity. An old Chinese woman on her front porch, her face fearful and her body hunched in submission, standing next to a pile of industrial garbage. Highways criss-crossing and suffocating each other. Factory workers clothed in bright, vibrant pink stretching across a harshly lit factory. Another depicting rows of factory workers at desks, their heads turned downward, with the exception of a single woman looking up in confusion and concern at the camera, as if she has just become aware of a new world. The photos all display a common thread: a massive industrial takeover choking out humanity by the throat, and a last-ditch effort of to recognize the people behind the machine.
Baichwall and Mettler present their subjects in a similar manner, with three particular scenes sticking out in my mind. One being the opening, nine-minute tracking shot down a hallway of endless factory machines and their thousands of workers. The shot again suggests infinity and the choking out of humanity behind the machine; very few workers even seem to notice the elaborate camera and dolly rig spanning their workspace, lost in industrial space. Another shot displays a close-up of a woman at her workstations bending wire around a piece of metal. Piece after piece she works without interruption or fault, laser-focused, working perfectly. The message is clear: this woman has become, in a very literal sense, a machine. Finally, and crushingly, the scene of villagers destroying their own village to make way for a dam, spurred on in their work by promises of payments from the government. People slaving to capitalism, destroying their own homes, to make way for more industry. Humanity, here, has disappeared completely. Industry reigns supreme.
Manufactured Landscapes is an incredible documentary and one of the few we have watched this year which I see myself revisiting many times. It is a work of masterful craftsmanship which highlights an almost post-apocalyptic world which we, ourselves, have helped create.

Manufactured Landscapes – An Environmental Film Response


Manufactured Landscapes, directed by Jennifer Baichwal, is an aesthetically pleasing poetic documentary that exhibits Edward Burtynsky’s photographic documentation of landscape alteration due to industrial production. Released in June 2007 by Foundry Films and National Film Board of Canada, this film highlights the waste produced by factories. In particular, there are striking video and photographic accounts of Chinese iron factory employees working furiously in assembly lines, children playing among mountains of manufactured waste, and of Shanghai’s contrasting atmosphere of wealth and poverty demonstrated by multi-storied buildings and old slums within feet of each other. The poetic modes employed in this documentary place mood, tone, and expression above information, persuasion, and explanation. While this choice of presentation may be thoroughly enjoyed by some, its intended audience is arguably one that has prior knowledge and appreciation for the aesthetics of cinema and photography.

With a handful of interviews from affected locals, and numerous lengthy shots of the area and people in question, Manufactured Landscapes examines the process of industrial and manufacturing practices, and the various resulting effects on its surrounding regions and people. The footage is undoubtedly a dominating element of this film, as it captures the extraordinarily complex system of an assembly line factory, and the repercussions of its waste production. The shots are often accompanied by an ambient soundtrack with no dialogue, and leave the viewer to completely, and without interruption, take in the images that are being presented.

The level of educational quality the documentary presents is moderate, but it fails to delve into extremely detailed accounts of the situation that is being covered, or its history; at least not through narration or interviews. A majority of the subject matter is portrayed through images that allow for the viewers’ own interpretation of the severity of the matter. It is clear that the film intended to release the viewer from traditional “hand-holding” passive reception, and rather force him/her to actively see what is being presented and think critically upon the images.

It should be noted that the slow tracking shots and lack of dialogue in this film can easily become mind-numbingly redundant for some viewers. The method by which the filmmakers hoped to encourage full engagement of the viewer can be unstimulating and dry, ultimately failed to hold the interest of some individuals. The intention was there, but the execution was arguably poor.

While Burtynsky’s photographs are undoubtedly stunning,  they do not translate well to what is essentially a 90-minute slideshow. More narrative and/or interviews, such as those given towards the end of the film in Shanghai, would likely give more to think about than just staring at a series of still, or near-still images with little information. It can be said that one may glean more from this film if they have some degree of education of the aesthetics and practices of film and photography as an art. This may therefore restrict the type of audience who can receive the documentary in such a fashion, and by definition limit its appeal for some viewers. Ultimately, this may result in bypassing the opportunity to convey a powerful message about the conditions of manufactured wastelands that is well received by a majority of its viewers, rather than only to those who are learned in Manufactured Landscapes’ form and technique.

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