Manufactured Landscapes

Manufactured Landscapes


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

They say every picture tells a story - but does it really? More accurately, every picture gives the observer the opportunity to draw their own conclusions, rather than being told anything. This is Jennifer Baichwal's attempt to take us beyond the frame of photographer Edward Burtynsky's images. The problem is, that despite becoming further immersed in the picture, she still fails to interpret it in any meaningful way.

Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who has become famous for his pictures of man's effect on the environment - sweeping vistas of quarries, row upon row of Chinese workers in huge factories, rivers running with chemical effluent and the like. Baichwal took her camera on tour with him across Asia and this film, which also features voiced contributions from Burtynsky on the nature of his work and reason for shooting what he does, is the result.

There is nothing wrong with Baichwal's camerawork, with a fascinating opening eight-minute shot of it roaming across a Chinese factory floor, particularly stunning - but everything lacks depth. While in some ways, it could be considered admirable that neither she or Burtynsky offer commentary on the images they are capturing, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusion, it also proves an exercise in frustration. When we see a woman testing water spray after water spray for irons in a factory, we desperately want to catch up with her later and ask what it's like. What are her hopes and fears for the future? Her opinions of what she does?

If we are to be offered no input from those in the frame then surely we might just as well be inspecting Burtynsky's images on the wall of a gallery? That would certainly be preferable to the huge slide sequences of his work included within the body of this documentary. Nothing is gained by seeing them on a screen rather than a wall and the accompanying musical scoring, deliberately industrial and discordant, also grates.

Burtynksy, too, comes out of this rather badly, since we see him trying to orchestrate the people in his photos - although this will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever held a camera. Despite one or two striking images, this is voyeuristically shallow - should those captured on film really be exploited for entertainment purposes with barely the opportunity to express their own opinion, when we are clearly already taking advantage of them in so many other ways?

Those interested in the plight of factory workers in China would be better advised to try to find a copy of David Redmon's Mardi Gras: Made In China (2005) or Micha X Peled's China Blue (2005), while those seeking more information of the Three Gorges Dam project should check out Yung Chang's Up The Yangtze (2007).

At one point Burtynsky says: "Go further. You'll find a more interesting place to shoot." Baichwal doesn't go far enough.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2008
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Manufactured Landscapes packshot
A documentarian follows photographer Edward Burtynsky as he captures the effects of industrialisation in Asia.
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Director: Jennifer Baichwal

Starring: Edward Burtynsky

Year: 2006

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Canada

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If you like this, try:

China Blue
Our Daily Bread
Up The Yangtze