Spending Time in Your Own Head

21 mins read

The first shot of Jennifer Baichwal’s new documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, tracks slowly across the floor of a massive factory, passing hundreds of workers hunched dutifully over the day’s projects. After four minutes you begin wondering if it’s a gag, if the shot has actually lapped itself. The rows and workers just keep on coming. The shot continues and continues and continues for ten minutes. It is one whole camera magazine, a cinematic eternity.

This trajectory may seem soporific, but not its effects. The fact of the factory’s small army and the suggestion of what they might cumulatively produce over the course of an afternoon (or a week or a month or a year) sets the viewer’s mind to buzzing: facts, figures, extrapolations. The camera never leaves the factory, but its implications are remarkably expansive. “The first shot,” says the film’s producer, Nick de Pencier, “is like a decompression chamber, from the outside world to the universe of this film. In it, you’re going to learn the rules of this film. It’s not Documentary 101.”

It may not be Doc 101, but Manufactured Landscapes, which will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is a dense and provocative piece of work. It centers on the Toronto-based photographer Ed Burtynsky, whose massively scaled shots of nature transformed by industry—recycling compounds and quarries, oil refineries and dump sites—have earned him an international presence and a prominent place in galleries such as the Guggenheim in New York and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

As de Pencier suggests, Manufactured Landscapes is unconventional in its structure. Although it follows Burtynsky as he visits China to photograph factories (hence the contents of the opening shot) and includes passages where he discusses his art and ethos, it’s not simply a portrait- of-the-artist-at-work. What Baichwal and her collaborators have done is trickier and far more eloquent. They’ve made a film that dovetails, both formally and philosophically, with its subject’s sensibility.

Burtynsky’s photographs, many of which are included in the film, are astonishing: a sun-blasted ship-breaking yard in Bangladesh that recalls the ocean- liner-in-the-desert sequence of Close Encounters of the Third Kind; a nickel tailing in Sudbury where an toxic orange lake coruscates across what looks like Martian terrain; a dam construction site in China that suggests Guernica in three jagged dimensions. At times, it’s hard to believe you’re actually looking at our world, possibly because on some level, you’re not: the littered, forlornly scooped- out sphere glimpsed by Burtynsky’s lens is not the Earth as it existed 200 or even 20 years ago. Forget the dour power-point presentations of An Inconvenient Truth. These stark, disorienting tableaux offer incontrovertible proof of the cruelly pockmarked face of the planet.

Over lunch at an Italian café near the University of Toronto campus, Baichwal and de Pencier, a husband and wife team whose creative partnership slightly predates their domestic one, are as eager to discuss Burtynsky’s work as their own. “I like Ed’s photographs so much,” says Baichwal. “I think the reason that they are so powerful is because they suggest an environmental consciousness in a non- didactic way. You’re drawn into these images, and then you think, ‘Holy shit! I’m looking at oil filters.’ Something in Ed’s photographs changes your consciousness without him preaching to you. So I wanted to extend what those photographs do into the medium of film, to try to extend the narratives of those photographs.” Or, as she puts it succinctly a few moments later: “to try to do in time what Ed does in space.”

This is not the first time that Baichwal has used the 24-frames-a-second format to probe at the impact and operations of a single, pointed snapshot. Check the title of her superb 2001 profile of the controversial portraitist Shelby Lee Adams (for which de Pencier did the cinematography): The True Meaning of Pictures. Baichwal’s interest in photography meant that she’d been aware of Burtynsky’s work for many years, but it wasn’t until her friend Daniel Iron, whom she and de Pencier credit for helping them to finish their breakthrough film, the acclaimed Paul Bowles profile Let it Come Down (1995), approached her with a cache of mini-DV footage of Burtysnky in Bangladesh and China, painstakingly wrangled and then abandoned by another filmmaker, that she realized how snugly Burtynsnky’s outlook and output fit with her own.

“We met with Ed,” she recalls, and told him, “if we can shoot more, we can also find a place for (the DV) footage.” And then it all happened very quickly. We managed to raise quite a lot of money; this is the biggest budget we’ve ever worked with…(and) suddenly, Ed was going to China. So the film became me traveling to China with Ed. There was this moment of panic for Nick and I, because we do everything together and we couldn’t have left (our) children for three weeks at that stage. We thought, ‘Who could we possibly work with?’ Nick thought of Peter Mettler because they’d worked together on a dance film called Streetcar (which de Pencier directed), with Peter as the cinematographer. Peter said, “I know Ed. I went to school with him.”

Securing Mettler’s services was a double coup. His history with Burtynsky (they both attended Ryerson Polytechnic University) was an unexpected plus, but more importantly, there was the fact of his solid track record as an artistic cinematographer, both for the demanding likes of Atom Egoyan _ and for his own highly regarded films, including the exhilarating, Chris Marker-esque, festival-circuit hit _Gambling, Gods and LSD (2003). “The breakthrough in this film is that it’s very experiential,” says de Pencier. “Mettler was a perfect fit for that, for replicating how you experience still photography. You’re having a time-based experience when you stand in front of (Burtynsky’s) photos because there’s so much detail. It’s not just a run-and-gun quick flash photograph. You get a first sense of it and then a second sense, and then it comes back to you and you metabolize it and you spend time in your own head. Mettler’s meditative, laconic shooting style suits that. You have time to really think.”

But, as Mettler explains it a few days later from his home base on the edge of College St. West, cinematography that gives the audience room to ruminate is often achieved from within a very different sort of headspace—harried, hurried and on the fly. “There’s a huge difference between what Ed does as a photographer and what we do,” says Mettler, who is a few hours away from the official announcement that he will be the subject of a retrospective at TIFF. “Ed knows what he’s going in for: he already has preview images, he finds his framing and waits for the right light and takes that shot…we have to do that, too. But it’s just the beginning of what we do.

We need to examine the place, find stories and people and connections. Ed loosened his schedule somewhat, but we had to go at a fast pace. My shooting was often very hasty—just trying to get things that were usable.”

Mettler’s smooth, impassive cinematography imbues Manufactured Landscapes with an appropriately monumental sense of scale. “My camerawork here is very heavy,” he says. “It’s anchored. It moves quite slowly. It attempts to allow you to examine things. I kept thinking of Bruegel, isolating little details.” The style is in contrast to his typically glancing images—if there’s a hallmark to Mettler’s cinema, it’s a restless, ever-shifting quality of perception—but he says that there was never a question of thinking outside of Baichwal’s sturdy design. And, as de Pencier had suspected, Mettler’s familiarity with Burtynsky had its benefits. “I was familiar with how he looked at things. I’d seen the progression in his work in real time, rather than just getting it all at once. When Jennifer asked me to do this, I was excited because I’d wanted to do something with Ed around the time he was doing the quarry photographs. I thought those were fantastic sets for something to happen. I took (this film) as a challenge, being dropped into the environments that he gives you an emblem of and bringing them to life.”

Speaking via telephone from his office in downtown Toronto, Ed Burtynsky seconds this notion of his photographs as emblems of a bigger picture. “They have to be able to stand in for larger events,” he says, modulating his tone with the practice of a man used to talking about what he does, “because there’s no way a still image can define the scope of what’s going on. I see them as metaphors that become representative of larger industrial incursions into the landscape. Someone said my subject is constantly expanding.” He laughs, a little bit ruefully. “The world is replete with things that could be my subject.”

A disconcerting sentiment, but Burtynsky’s isn’t out to foster a sense of comfort. It’s why he felt comfortable working with Baichwal. He knew she would try to highlight the complexity of his project, to work through the issues rather than simply inventory them. “I saw her Shelby Lee Adams film,” he says, “and I thought it was really well done. There’s an underlying issue with (Adams’) work: this photographer who claims to be one with his subjects and then the prints are for sale in Chicago (and gallery goers are) drinking wine with these images in the background. It raises a whole raft of questions around ethics and the politics of representation—and the representation of politics, too. She handled it beautifully.”

Burtynsky’s work is very different from Adams’—it’s close-ups versus wide shots, portraiture versus landscape—but both are similarly open to questions. Does it constitute archaeology or activism? Or is it both—a rendering of the way we live now, framed with an eye already peering skeptically to the future? “One of the things that modern society has done is disconnect from the idea of nature, the idea that all things originate from nature,” says Burtynsky. “As an artist, it was interesting to look at and redefine landscape as that place that we disconnected from. Every image I take goes back to this idea: how do I show what’s happening in that other world that we no longer associate with progress? We tend to think of these places as having negative connotations, but in every act of creation, there’s an act of destruction. We just have chosen not to look at the destructive aspect of creation. I’m interested in showing what that void looks like, and to find a visual language to talk about it without overly politicizing it. These images are on a razor’s edge of being able to be interpreted in so many ways. They’re agents for coaxing dialogue about places rather than telling you how you should see those places.”

It’s a subtle postulation, maybe too subtle in a time when mass media strives to be as bluntly comprehensible as possible and even documentaries work to exploit, rather than counteract, our ever- shortening attention spans. “I had trouble,” Burtynsky begins cautiously, “with Michael Moore’s 9/11 film. It was as bad as propaganda from the other side. You realize that you can stitch together an argument on anything, and if you’re clever you can sequence information any way you want. I’ve never wanted to go there.” Says de Pencier, “People are so used to declarative, agenda-driven films. As soon as you engage in that, you become compartmentalized; your constituency will love it, and everyone else will hate it. What is unique about Ed’s photographs is that they hang in the boardrooms of corporations and those of Greenpeace. So what they, and this film, are potentially capable of is broadening the constituency for dialogue, instead of just ranting.”

“It was very important for me,” adds Baichwal, “that we were going to give a sense of the revolution that China is going through to understand our own implication in it. People talk about the pollution from China coming over the West Coast without recognizing that every time you go to Wal Mart or the bloody dollar store or buy a pair of sneakers you’re buying into this whole project. We’re all in this web of industry.” While she and de Pencier say they were cautious to not turn their film into a creed about the sad state of affairs in China—a country whose great leap to the forefront of international industry comes with a closetful of ethical and environmental skeletons—it was hard to not be affected by what they saw while in Burtynsky’s company.

“What’s going on in China is tragic,” Baichwal continues. “They’ve decided to become the manufacturers of the world, but they’re doing so at great cost to their own people and environment. They have no environmental regulations. The Reeboks of the world put dye in their rivers because no one gives a shit. I knew that we had to refrain from judgment, as Ed’s photographs do, so that we could reflect on our own culpability.”

“It’s a complex thing,” says Burtynsky. “What is our right to resource? Do we have the same rights to cut down a tree as a beaver has to build a dam? Where does that separation begin?” One can say that we’re a life force on this planet, and so we take things. We’re part of the circle of life on the planet. We’re one of the few species that can plumb our pasts, or predict our future, which makes us unique. That’s the response I want the work to provoke. What is our stewardship? How do we proceed from here?”

If Manufactured Landscapes doesn’t answer that question—what film could?— it does provide a sobering hint: we may already be too far gone. The closing sequence takes us through a stretch of bleached wasteland just outside of Beijing. As the film ends, we approach a hyper- modern cityscape, a blinking, many-eyed monster shrouded in an unnatural haze. This, the film suggests, is where we’ve arrived—what’s behind us is paved over and forgotten. Manufactured Landscapes succeeds it in its attempt to extend Ed Burtynsky’s artistic consciousness into a cinematic realm, but it’s also informed by his troubled and searching conscience. His eye for the beauty of waste is peerless, but the key to his art is that it both holds our gaze and then directs it inward. These spaces—gorgeous, terrible and irreconcilable—are actually mirrors. The savagely wrought imperfections therein are our own.

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

Previous Story

The POV Interview: Lindalee Tracey

Next Story

Gathering Moss

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00