Features

Canada’s Documentary Essentials: ‘Manufactured Landscapes’

Dir. Jennifer Baichwal, 2006

Cankun Factory, Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, China.
Edward Burtynsky / Courtesy Mongrel Media


Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes opens with a cinematic coup. An eight-minute tracking shot slowly sweeps across a factory floor in China. The camera, guided expertly by cinematographer Peter Mettler, gradually moves down the assembly line and takes in row upon row of workers.

This shot recalls the experience of standing in a gallery and observing a photograph in awe. The camera travels across the floor in the same fashion that one’s eyes probe the canvas of a photograph, savouring the details to enjoy an awe-inspiring whole. As the shot continues and the ambient whir of machinery rises with a haunting musical cue, the scale of this operation becomes alarmingly massive. By the eighth minute, one is dumbstruck by this dehumanised and mechanised feat of industry.

This opening shot perfectly mixes the style of Manufactured Landscapes with that of its subject, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, as the image cuts to his still photograph of the same factory floor. The film features numerous portraits of corrupted natural surroundings and landscapes that bear the scars of industry. Baichwal achieves in shot duration what Burtynsky does in space and scale. Film and photography are both visual media, but Manufactured Landscapes extends the element of time to accentuate the gravity of Burtynsky’s work. Pans, tableaux and slow zoom-outs convey the sheer enormity of waste made by human activity.

Baichwal and Burtynsky use striking images of gargantuan dams, huge factories and oceans of oil waste to direct worldwide attention toward these looming threats to the natural environment. “Maybe the new landscape of our time, the one we start to talk about, is the landscape that we change,” Burtynsky suggests in the film’s opening shot. “The one that we disrupt in pursuit of progress.”

Back in North America, Manufactured Landscapes tours cavernous excavation sites in Frackville, U.S.A. and a blood-red river that cuts violently through the ashen landscape of Sudbury, Ontario. Whether shot in North America or Asia, Manufactured Landscapes reveals to well-off audiences the global costs of the consumer culture they enjoy—too often—in blissful ignorance.

Winner of the Genie for best documentary feature, the prize for best Canadian feature at TIFF and other honours when it was released in 2006, Manufactured Landscapes resonates stronger the more it ages, for the landscapes continue to change as industry violates the natural scenery. 

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