2006Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Cast: Edward Burtynsky
elatively late in Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, after a lot of arresting images of urban and technological detritus in the Eastern Hemisphere, photographer Edward Burtynsky—a guy who makes a living photographing the metamorphosis of this detritus cum re-tritus—says something really interesting. I don’t remember what, exactly, but I’ll try and paraphrase anyway.
The Burtynsky Paraphrase: I try not to hang an overt political message on my photos, because that would be too polarizing, and it would make the viewer’s choice simple. Either they agree with the politics or they disagree. In simply presenting the image and keeping my mouth shut, I’m opening up a forum for complex response.
Understandable. Burtynsky’s work is the stuff of alien composition that, at least initially, renders a spectator unable to form an off-the-cuff opinion, because they’ll likely have a difficult time figuring out what exactly it is they are looking at. That’s the immediate reaction, followed by some cranial mastication and the realization that this is the inside of a Chinese sweatshop, where endless rows of workers gradually fade into sterility and an inexplicable (chemically induced?) haze on the other side of the horizon’s meniscus. Dressed in toxic yellow jackets or pink lab robes, with masks covering their faces, rendered anonymous and diligent. Images amplified and animated by Baichwal’s roving camera. Getting over the initial shock, now. It becomes a bit more clear Manufactured Landscapes is, mercilessly, a film about how the other half lives.
It’s also a film about the something-more-than-a-niche China (and Asia, in general) has carved out for itself in the global economy by performing services Westerners wouldn’t dream of doing in a million leisurely years. In one Chinese village, for example, a solid portion of the residents support themselves by sorting through mountain ranges worth of dispelled and junked computer parts, picking out the reusable, to repackage and resell them en masse. The job requires the endurance of both imprisonment (electronic recycling is illegal in the country), and lethal doses of gaseous compounds, derivatives of a noxious chemical called Cadmium, which is present in much of the refuse and used as pigment in the electronics. Something like half of all electronic waste used for recycling purposes is dumped in China, a percentage of which is salvaged and shipped back westward to manufacturers. It’s apparently, according to Baichwald, a vital aspect of the electronic manufacturers business, but it’s illegal in the States and Europe.
Baichwal uses the Chinese industrial sprint and Burtynsky’s work as a springboard to launch into her own exploration, lending a new dynamism to our understanding of the phenomena. She extrapolates from Burtynksy’s photographs, using cinema to communicate in a new, compelling way. When articulating this procedure, Burtynsky’s photographs communicate scope, as they are shot with a wide lens and presented in a large format. His subject is big, often overwhelming, bludgeoning the spectator. Baichwald communicates a similar scope, but instead of going big, she goes small, and utilizes the versatility and range of observation a video camera allots by investigating the intricacies of the recycling process, cut-by-cut, crane-by-crane, and pan-by-pan. Each point of attack still leads us to similar realizations: all this is a dirty job Westerners aren’t keen to do, but the Chinese are willing to fill the void.
Scenes like the above-mentioned do not require further commentary. They speak volumes by themselves. As artists, Burtynsky and Baichwald pioneer a kind of shockwave resonance birthed from restraint. Thus, it’s goddamn difficult to walk away from Manufactured Landscapes without an opinion, and I’m sure both filmmaker and photographer are well aware.
Manufactured Landscapes is currently playing at the Film Forum in Manhattan.
By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-07-03