“We’ve created a world that buffers us from nature.”
In the past few years, there has been a healthy emission of premium-grade eco-conscious documentaries — Darwin’s Nightmare, Our Daily Bread, The Future of Food, Who Killed the Electric Car?, A Crude Awakening — though none, obviously, with the star power or box-office wallop of Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, which grossed more than $41 million worldwide. Not to take anything away from newly crowned Nobel laureate Al Gore, whose folksy, oracular film debut can certainly be credited with the breakthrough in public awareness about the human causes of global warming, but will anyone watch his inert mélange of PowerPoint graphics, Futurama-style animation, maudlin storytelling, and campaign-stop crisis rhetoric in 25 years and think, wow, what a great movie? To future generations assaying the emergence of green consciousness in early 21st-century movies, perhaps the most cinematically adventurous film about the ongoing degradation of our natural environment will be Jennifer Baichwal’s shockingly gorgeous Manufactured Landscapes, which won top honors at the 2006 Toronto Film Critics Association Awards (for best Canadian feature and best documentary) and a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Ostensibly, Manufactured Landscapes is an artist-at-work portrait of renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who travels the globe taking formalist photographs of quarries, factories, mines, refineries, and recycling yards, documenting the pitiless cratering of vast expanses by some of the world’s most massive industries. His large-format, high-resolution photos have hung in galleries around the world, eliciting a variety of responses about sustainability, labor issues, corporate ethics, and of course, the art-historical referents quoted within his titanic images, which embody a style that might best be described as toxic romanticism. In one, shot near Modesto, California, alpine heaps of some 45 million tires extend as far as the eye can see. In another, rivers of bright orange waste run-off from a nickel mine bend toward the viewer in a florid, hornlike pattern. Often mounted as wall-spanning diptychs, these images resemble abstract-expressionist paintings from a distance; up close, one can isolate disquieting details, such as human figures in the foreground, mere fly specks in a wasteland of refuse, scurrying across a man-ravaged landscape of unimaginable scale.
Baichwal, who has previously directed two searching documentaries, Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles and The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia, knows how to enter the creative consciousness of her artist-subjects without resorting to hero worship or A&E Biography clichés. But with her latest film, she seems less interested in trying to pinpoint a specific methodology or acting as a mouthpiece for Burtynsky’s personal viewpoints than in thinking alongside the artist — that is, extending in real time the troubling context for, and humble stories contained within, his majestic artworks. Part visual travelogue, part social critique,Manufactured Landscapes tags along with Burtynsky on a 2005 sojourn to China, where an unprecedented boom in industrial manufacturing is transforming life and landscape at a terrifyingly rapid pace. And ever so subtly, the film morphs from a docu-portrait into a heady examination of globalization and the dark flipside of Western consumerism.
Baichwal begins with Burtynsky’s photos, then brings them to life with incredible on-site footage of the places he visits: a ship-breaking beach in Bangladesh (above) where rusty, decommissioned oil tankers are dismembered by hand and scraped for sludge; a coal-distribution center whose alien-looking field of carbon pyramids feed the behemoth furnaces at Bao Steel; a village where menial laborers scour sky-high piles of metal junk and e-waste (mostly discarded PCs and circuit boards shipped over from North America) for copper filaments; and the like. The film has an epic visual scale, and much of Baichwal’s footage — like that of a sprawling factory complex staffed by armies of migrant workers clad in identical bubble-gum-pink uniforms — leave a viewer with an unsettling sense of complicity in the spectacle. After all, China is churning at such a furious pace (and belching so many pollutants into the land, sea, and air) to keep up with our addiction to Nikes, Intel chips, synthetic silks, cheap appliances, toys, car parts, and electronics.
Burtynsky, who’s intermittently seen setting up his god’s-eye-view shots and narrating the arc of his life’s work with slides for a lecture audience, has made five trips to China since 2001. One of his favorite subjects is Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in history, which has displaced 1.1 million people from the demolished Yangtze River cities. When the 600km reservoir was filled, he remarks at one point, the rush of water caused “a measurable wobble” in the earth’s rotation. In the film, we glimpse black-and-white footage of residents dismantling their own soon-to-be-drowned cities, a self-destructive labor for which, Burtynsky’s voiceover drolly informs us, they were paid “by the brick.” Baichwal also takes us into the heart of Shanghai, a city growing at such a mind-boggling rate that its built environment, an endless vista of needle-thin modernist skyscrapers, resembles the set of a science-fiction movie about a cyborg-populated techno-utopia.
With its emphasis on image over exposition, awed contemplation over moral sermonizing, Manufactured Landscapes bears witness to the heft of our industrial footprint in an intuitive, meditative way, augmented by Dan Driscoll’s eerie ambient score. Yet Baichwal is also keenly interested in the human face behind China’s historical transformation, something that tends to be underplayed in Burtynsky’s own still photos. In the mesmerizing nine-minute tracking shot that opens the film, a tour-de-force dolly-and-pan sequence choreographed with DP Peter Mettler, Baichwal’s camera creeps along the floor of the Cankun Factory in Xiamen City, Fujian, a sprawling complex the size of four football fields, peering in at the work stations of employees meticulously assembling some minuscule unit to be fitted into an espresso machine. Outside, the same multitude of employees, outfitted in canary-yellow uniforms to match the buildings they work in, assemble for an early-morning pep talk orchestrated in military fashion. Later, Baichwal interviews a young female welder about her work, talks to a bubbly real estate agent in Shanghai, and gives her official handlers a bit of screen time to deliver their scripted spiel. At Bao Steel, company reps simply worry that Burtynsky’s images won’t be “beautiful.”
Aestheticized horror, of course, is precisely the mode both imagemakers employ to implicate us self-reflexively in these dehumanizing scenarios of industry and devastation. Modernity as progress, as planetary pillaging. The double bind is inescapable. The brilliance of Baichwal’s film, however, like Burtynsky’s photographs, is that it never asks you to accept a line of argument about what you are seeing. Instead, it invites you to observe, and to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the processes the camera unveils. The judgments you arrive at are entirely your own. For that reason, Manufactured Landscapes may one day be seen not as a slyly staged diatribe or piece of political propaganda, but as a time capsule of civilization at a crossroads, an elegy for life on the cusp of irrevocable change.
I spoke with Baichwal and Burtynsky at the New York offices of Zeitgeist Films, which will release a U.S. edition of Manufactured Landscapes on DVD on November 20, 2007. We talked about the power of images, the difficulties of filming in China, and the idea of the technological sublime.
DAMON SMITH: I’d like to begin by asking you about the opening of Manufactured Landscapes, which is this incredible nine-minute tracking shot of the work floor at China’s Cankun Factory (above). For a while, I felt like I was in a Béla Tarr movie or something. It was really impressive, and I think it established one of the major themes of the film, which is the scale of industry. It also established a visual continuity between your filmmaking, Jennifer, and your photography, Ed, because at the end of that tracking shot, you cut to an aerial long view of the factory floor that dissolves into one of Ed’s actual still photographs. Was that something you coordinated together, the set-up of that sequence?
JENNIFER BAICHWAL: That photograph Ed had already taken on a previous trip. When we were going to this factory, it was because it was the cover shot for his book Burtynsky — China, where everyone’s lined up outside and they’re having their pep talk. And so Ed was setting up that shot, and we were with him. But one of the benefits of doing work with materials that already exist is that you can think about all of these things beforehand. And when we first started talking about doing the film, it was very important to me that the photographs were the departure point — that we were beginning with the photographs and trying to extend their impact and meaning into the medium of film in an intelligent way. Coming up with how to do it was the subject of many long discussions and struggles. But we knew we wanted to start there rather than with a biography or portrait of an artist. Most films are like that, they fall into that genre. So the question was, between [cinematographer] Peter Mettler and I, how will we translate this work? Film is a time-based medium, so scale — the idea of conveying scale in time — was the point of that shot. In a way, it kind of expresses in a microcosm what the film is trying to do. So the set-up was, How can we shoot this in a way that not just complements but translates this diptych on a massive scale? And we walked all around that factory. As you can see, it’s enormous. [To Ed] How many football fields?
EDWARD BURTYNSKY: About 450 meters. Almost a kilometer. One of a whole bunch of them.
BAICHWAL: From the catwalk, we walked all around and spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how we could convey scale. Should we go in and follow little stories on each conveyor belt, things that are going on inside? And instead, we said, Is there somewhere we can do this as a dolly? It immediately made sense. It’s such a long shot, and I knew immediately at the end of it that it would be the opening of the film. Because not only does it get you used to the rhythm of the film, which is fairly meditative anyway, it saturates you in scale with everything you’re about to see in a way that is totally visceral. So you go through excruciating boredom and you get really uncomfortable and then . . .
BURTYNSKY: You start fidgeting! [Laughs]
BAICHWAL: And you come out the other side of that into recognition of what you’re looking at, and what your experience is going to be. It was meant to be an experiential moment.
And it absolutely was. I felt so many moods passing through me: At first it was mesmerizing, then at a certain point I was dumbfounded. And then at a later point, I was just thinking, “This is absurd. It’s still going!”
BAICHWAL/BURTYNSKY: Exactly. [Laughter]
I’m really curious about the dynamic you two established, especially the dynamic between still photography and moving pictures, and what you talked about early on in terms of how to put this film together. How did you even decide to work together?
BURTYNSKY: It was kind of serendipitous in that there was a process that had begun years before, so the black-and-white footage that you saw [in the film] was really a way for Jennifer to put that into another context. There’s a kind of immediacy to that footage, of somebody just following me around in these other places. This gentleman [Jeff Powis] had an idea that he was going to do a doc and he had never worked in the industry, nor did he know that you have to raise the money first before you make the film. [Laughs] And I didn’t know. He just followed me around. He did cut something together for an hour-long piece for television. At first, I said, Oh dear, I don’t like it. [Laughs] It just felt like so many other docs and it really wasn’t an extension of my work, nor was it really — it was more like a BBC doc on the shipbreakers of Bangladesh, which is a fascinating subject in and of itself, but it just didn’t go anywhere. So I encouraged him to go out and get more opinions on it and see if he could get somebody to help him shape it into something a little more substantial. But as he went around, things were gelling to the point that we got to another company called Rhombus. [Producer] Danny Irons heard about the film and saw it. Then I think he approached Jennifer and asked, Would you be interested in looking at this footage? She knew about my work and so that kind of clicked.
BAICHWAL: There’s something attractive about the forensic nature of going into something you haven’t shot yourself and trying to find a story there. We watched 80 hours of that mini-DV stuff. I knew I couldn’t make a film with this footage, but I could incorporate it into a larger vision. When I first saw Ed’s photographs twelve years ago, I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the dialogue that these stills raised. Not only do they let you witness the places you are responsible for but would never normally see — the interior of those factories that make your clothing iron, the recycling heap it goes to after you throw it away — not only that, but the fact that they’re so nondidactic, that they allow anybody, really, to engage in that dialogue. So we tried to recreate the macro-micro experience that you have when you’re standing in front of one of those enormous still frames. It’s a wide view and you’re overwhelmed; then you look in closer and see garbage or people. You really have this back and forth and we tried to do that as well.
During the course of the film we often see or hear you, Ed, talking about how you don’t want to moralize to people, to tell them what the political subtext of these photographs is. You want to let them speak for themselves. I wonder if by choosing certain images, images that necessarily provoke certain kinds of questions, you aren’t already imparting something critical to their content?
BURTYNSKY: It does exist there, but it’s more a conscious meditative approach to what it is I want to show. One can certainly say, This is a critique of globalism, of American or Taiwanese manufacturers creating these co-ventures in China and exploiting the labor. One can have that dialogue. One can say, Well, look, they’ve got some of the latest equipment, they’re lifting these people out of poverty, they need work, their lifestyle here is way better than what they had. I like the fact that different disciplines can come in and approach this object and begin to say it relates to this and also to that. I found something very interesting when I presented my work at Queens University, in Kingston, Ontario. We did a cross-disciplinary thing, where the engineering, geology, geography, arts, environmental science, and business departments all came together around the images and each responded to them. And now we’re actually doing them as a forum.
BAICHWAL: That’s fascinating.
BURTYNSKY: Yeah. Everything has consequence, and this is about consequence. This is about the other side of our built environment and the other side of our consumer culture. There’s this other world that is massive and ever-growing, and it has consequences both to the diminishment of natural resources and to the expansion of China and the externalization of a lot of the dirty stuff that it takes to make the stuff we like. But it’s going into their rivers, and into their air, their food and water, and so all those things are on the table. But you can just pick your handle and enter. When I was in Aral, there was a big photo festival, and my work won the award for the work that has done the most to increase the dialogue around globalization and global culture, because it allows for a kind of openness for people to begin to debate about the meaning of these things. That’s what I felt failed in the past in the traditional environmental movement. It was: Environmentalists are here to save nature, to save our resources. We good, you bad. You’re a bad corporation, look what you’re doing. And ultimately, it was so easy for the corporations to marginalize them by saying, Well, they don’t know how to run the world, are we going to give it over to them? We Know how to run the world. And so the conversation stopped.
BAICHWAL: I really believe that the ambiguity is the center of power in these photographs because they are open. In that slightly uneasy place, that’s where you reflect back on yourself and think, Gee, I’m involved in this. That pile of e-waste that I’m looking at — I’m directly related to that. We were also trying in the film to preserve that ambiguity. When you look at Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, it’s didactic from beginning to end. It’s an argument from an impassioned individual, and that’s where it gets its power. Obviously, he’s spent his whole life thinking about these things. You’re moved by his message because of that power. But our film almost arrives at the same point through a completely different route by being experiential, by witnessing and allowing you to draw your own conclusions and think your own thoughts. From all the screenings we’ve had so far , the thoughts are mostly, Where do we go from here? What have I been unconscious of in these cycles of consumption and waste that I engage in every day? And I do think changing consciousness is the first step in changing behavior.
Do you think you actually transformed Ed’s work through the process of filming? One powerful example to me is the worker who’s meticulously testing the miniature spray valves going into that steam iron, one after the other after the other; then you cut to a trash heap of steam irons. That was a very powerful cinematic gesture, to fuse those two images. I wonder if by focusing on the human aspect — this film is running in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, after all — you trained and focused on some things, perhaps, that were a more subtle aspect of Ed’s work.
BAICHWAL: Because the resolution of these photos is extraordinary, there are hundreds of narratives in these wide frames, and when you look in close and follow them, there are all of these inherent narratives. That person has a door on his back walking through a ruined landscape, this person’s making a fire, here’s a little kid eating something. It’s amazing how many stories are teeming inside this wide view. Peter always talked about it being like a Brueghel painting. When we could put the long lens on and follow those details, I was teasing out — again, in a time-based medium, and from cut to cut — I was trying to tease out those narratives. So those women — it was devastating to watch them. It made you aware of the painstaking effort that goes into making even tiny little disposable things. It’s not like they’re at NASA making bombs that everybody’s worried about. They’re making a spray mechanism, for God’s sake! And they’re there all day long.
It’s a double gesture, too, because on the one hand you’re able to focus on those narratives, but you’re also enhancing our appreciation for Ed’s work, which has this epic quality. Was this your third trip to China, Ed?
Were there any difficulties traveling? Did you have any trouble setting up? And also, what do you tell officials there? Are they aware that this is something that will be hanging in an art gallery in the West?
BURTYNSKY: By the fifth shoot, I was working pretty much at the highest levels of foreign affairs in China. As we were trying to enter deeper into the subject I was working with, we needed more approvals, so ultimately I ended up working with the Canadian embassy. They wrote letters on my behalf saying I’m a well-respected photographer in Canada and that I’ve been traveling around the world, and that I have a particular knack for photographing big industries and China is the place. [Laughs] And when I actually got in front of them, my appeal was that indeed I think I have a kind of intuitive sense of what kind of images can make a powerful statement about this transition they’re going through. I said to them, “I don’t think anybody of my level is capturing what’s happening in this country, and you are at a historic moment of transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Images are open, and mine are in particular.” By taking that consciously ambiguous position, it’s kind of like putting up Rorschach tests. Because the image doesn’t say, This is what I am, this is why the photographer made it, and this is his intention and what he’s trying to say. You have to go to that picture and, without knowing anything about me, you have to begin to complete the subject. Somebody from the industry will read it totally different than an environmentalist, who’ll probably read it different than someone who studied art history or Joe Average, who might just stand in front of the print and go Wow, what is this? The work of art is completed in the mind of the person who’s seeing it. I think the film, in a way, has succeeded in doing that too.
BAICHWAL: We’re not claiming neutrality or objectivity. There was a time when documentarians thought they could achieve that, but not anymore. When I first saw the film with an audience, I was amazed at how heavy it was. At the end there was a stunned silence. And in my experience from being in some of these recycling yards and factories, and in these utterly devastated environments, it’s almost surreal: You look all around and there’s nothing natural left. This was profoundly consciousness changing. [To Ed] And I do think you’ve even said that you’ve always been an advocate of sustainability, but that your trips to China tipped you over into being . . .
BAICHWAL: . . . a much more vocal advocate. Because you just can’t not be. We initially intended to do some shoots in North America, but we had so much footage I said I just want to work with this to begin with and we’ll see where we go. And it was so rich. My worry was, OK, I don’t want people to see this film and think it’s about China. People in China know exactly what’s going on, they’re doing what every industrialized country has done, so it’s not like they don’t know they’re completely devastating their environment. They just think they can clean it up later once they’ve made money, like everybody else has.
BURTYNSKY: Or not. [Laughs]
BAICHWAL: Or not. The scale is so much bigger they may not have that luxury. But my worry was, if you’re mostly in this other place, will you still reflect back on yourself? This is a global situation. All of this industry is happening over there. But their industrial revolution is directly fueled by us, by all of the crap that we buy, so I was very glad to learn from the feedback we’ve had from audiences. People do get that, even though you’re mostly over there — they are thinking of themselves and their participation. So obviously, there are political elements, as there are in any film. It’s just not a polemic.
In one scene from the film, Jennifer, you interview a hard-hat laborer at Three Gorges Dam and ask him if he’s proud of his country for building such a historically massive public-works project. And he says, “I just work here.”
BAICHWAL: Yeah. That was a great moment. Getting back to your question about how hard it was to shoot there: For some reason, [the Chinese] are much more sensitive about motion-picture cameras than still cameras. We wanted to talk to more people, but whenever we tried, we got into trouble. Their supervisors said, “Oh, you’re bothering them, they’re trying to have their lunch” — meaning “Don’t talk to them.” We interviewed this woman at the shipbuilding yard who was a welder. She looked like she was 18 years old and I thought, What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in school? [Laughs] She said, “I failed to get into high school so I came here to work, my mother worked here,” and it was a fairly benign conversation. But we were not allowed to go back there the next day, because she was not the official spokesperson for this place and was not giving an official story. Her view was meaningless and therefore should not have been solicited. So that dance was constant. And the sequence [at the] coal-distribution [field] — it’s always difficult to be self-referential in film. It’s a tricky balance. I kept coming [into the frame] because I wanted to show the difficulties that Ed goes through [negotiating with officials]. I wanted to give a sense of that, but at the same time didn’t want it to be “Poor us, the film crew that’s getting oppressed.” We’re in a completely different context and culture, and it’s already tricky looking from the outside on that culture. It was hard. Sometimes we snuck around. Our last day, in Shanghai, we told our minder that we were just going shopping. And instead, we went into the burned-out areas where they’re trying to relocate people. And there were still some holdouts there, and those are very sensitive areas. Ed himself almost got arrested a few times.
BURTYNSKY: Well, I was detained, yeah.
BAICHWAL: You know the building in the film with all the rubble around it? There were people who didn’t want to leave and we wanted to talk to a few of them. We just said we’re going shopping and instead we went into these neighborhoods and talked to some people there, especially one person who said, “I don’t want to leave. People are being relocated two hours outside the city. I’ll get there and my house may not have plumbing or windows because these contractors are all corrupt. And I’m not being given enough money for this place to buy another somewhere else. This is my neighborhood, I’ve lived here all my life.” So that was tricky, and we heard that somebody had called the police [on us]. There were moments like that, dramatic moments.
There is one elderly woman you did speak to who refused to leave her building. Did the real estate agent point her out to you or did you find her on your own?
BAICHWAL: [Long pause] I can’t answer that question. [Laughs] Let’s just leave it as it is.
An aspect of your China work, Ed, that really fascinates and troubles me is that these images are so breathtakingly beautiful, yet what they’re depicting is often quite disturbing. And I think what gives them so much power is not just the scale but, to quote William Blake, this “fearful symmetry” that they have.
Has that always been an aspect of what you do, trying to create something that has that kind of double nature, that diptych quality?
BURTYNSKY: Attraction and repulsion. Yeah. There is that toggle that I think is really interesting to work with. Why would you think a pile of junk or a big hole in the ground at a quarry site would make a good subject? One of art’s great strengths, one of the universalities that art does have is that if we can find something that’s visually compelling, that has an aspect of beauty to it, it starts to move across cultures, it moves across different points of view. I think there’s something Jungian or archetypal in that we react to certain kinds of formations, certain textures, certain colors, compositions, light. Art is a human construct. But there are constructs that make us want to look at something or make us want to avert our eyes. And I was interested in that magnetism — what draws us into a picture. One of the things I always felt was a real powerful draw is something that can invoke our sense of wonder, like, What is this? What am I looking at? Why does this capture me? And I was interested in that, as a picturemaker. But I wanted to [fashion the images] so you can’t read them quickly. And even after you get it and [the image] constantly reveals more of itself, you enter that second reading and say, Well, that’s a forty-gallon drum of oil and that’s a huge place, right? If you look at the early Romantics, the Turner paintings — a ship lost at sea, gale-force winds — nature was an omnipresent, fearful, sublime force. We were dwarfed within that world. And then fast forward 175 years: We’ve created a world that buffers us from nature. In the urban world we’ve built up, we’ve created this industrial complex that to me is the new sublime. We are dwarfed within that creation. My figures are usually players in a greater theater of industry, and therefore the individual isn’t necessarily my pursuit. It’s technology and our relationship to nature.
BAICHWAL: But it’s all a human construct. It’s industry. The things we create are now the things that dwarf us, rather than nature dwarfing us. Also, the seductive aesthetic is part of that ambiguity, because you’re drawn in. When I first saw Densified Oil Filters #1 I was looking from far back in a room and I thought, Wow, that’s a beautiful abstract painting. What is that? So I was enjoying being enmeshed in these worlds of color, and then when I went in closer to see what it was and realized what it depicted, I literally recoiled. Oh my God, these are oil filters! That’s when the dialogue started.