How Manufactured Landscapes can change the lens through which we see our own world
Reflecting on filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky's extraordinary collaboration
This is part of a series of essays by panellists featured on the new CBC Arts talk show The Filmmakers. A panellist from each episode writes about the film being featured this week, which this week is author and professor Darrell Varga discussing Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes. You can watch Varga alongside Art Gallery of Ontario curator Sophie Hackett and scientist, environmentalist and host of The Nature of Things David Suzuki on the full panel here.
Our monument to civilization is kept out of the view of citizens in the west. It is the monstrous heap of disposable consumer goods shipped away to locations in Asia where peasant women and children squat among the waste to chip away at electronic components in order to recover precious metals. But if they are precious, why do we use them to build so much junk? This is the key contradiction of our time: tremendous wealth misdirected to the production of quickly-disposed consumable goods, existing alongside massive poverty and waste.
Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes is a collaboration with photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose subject is the environment transformed by human material. The film shows us these built spaces, and Burtynsky's process of making strikingly beautiful images of this landscape, while also probing deeper to the lives lived amidst the ruins. Burtynsky is working in the long tradition of landscape representation within art history while Baichwal is more precisely focussed on the ways that the environment is always already transformed by culture.
The film begins with an amazing tracking shot through a massive Chinese factory, continuing for over eight minutes — a bit less than the run time of a roll of 16mm motion picture film, on which the documentary was shot. One gets the sense that if the camera had not run out of film, the shot would continue even further.
The camera travels at a gentle pace, but this is a sublime viewing experience, both immense and strangely claustrophobic. About halfway through the shot, we hear Burtynsky voicing the desire to see nature but nature is transformed all around us, and this is the reality of our time. Or, if we are able to access pristine places, it is because we have the capital and because we have located industrial manufacturing and waste disposal out of sight. In this way, the film is revealing the consequences of globalization in the separation of production from consumption. As the very real effects of anthropocenic climate change become increasingly impossible to ignore, the film shows us the unequal consequences of nature transformed.
As the very real effects of anthropocenic climate change become increasingly impossible to ignore, the film shows us the unequal consequences of nature transformed.- Darrell Varga, professor and author
Watching Manufactured Landscapes ten years after its release, the scale of the problem has only multiplied but this film does not relay the story in the reams of data readily available on the subject of the environment (such as the fact that in the US, 17 million barrels of oil are needed for the plastic used in the bottled water industry). Instead, we watch as Burtynsky gives shape to the world through his photographic lens — and, in this way, the film is about the process of seeing.
At one point, the camera holds for an extended period on the face of a factory worker as she repeatedly assembles a tiny switch for a clothing iron. Later, we see heaps of metal plates — former irons. This is the contradiction of scale that the film reveals, the vast heaps of waste and the tiny figures in the landscape. What goes unsaid in this relationship is that those in the west are responsible for the vast amount of waste dumped on the doorstep of people who have little access to the so-called pleasures of consumption. These people are also made disposable by this system of relations.
These ideas have been taken up in subsequent Burtynsky-Baichwal collaborations in the 2013 film Watermark and the currently-in-production Anthropocene. The latter is expected to be expanded into parallel forms: a museum installation and virtual reality along with conventional documentary. In this way, the form of these projects is mirroring the very scale of the problem they seek to address. An important aspect of this work is not that they are a simple lament for an ideal of nature, but that they reveal the massive acceleration of human impact on the earth. This perspective is, in turn, framed by the fact that the way we see landscape, or any space for that matter, is through the lens of culture, perspective and experience. We see ourselves in this process of transformation. The films are beautiful — but, in our actions, we are not.
The Filmmakers airs this Saturday at 10 p.m. (10:30 NT) on CBC Television, or stream it at cbc.ca/watch. After the episode, stick around to see this week's feature presentation, Across The Line.