Initially, Jennifer Baichwal‘s “Manufactured Landscapes” recalls last year’s “Our Daily Bread.” A clinical crawl through a gargantuan Chinese factory – with its endless, evenly spaced stations of laborers glued to tedious tasks – hauntingly echoes similar tracking shots Nikolaus Geyrhalter used in his film to explore the lulling, mechanical uniformity of industrial food production. “Our Daily Bread” discovers otherworldly environments and depersonalized regiments behind the curtain of modern agricultural processes; “Manufactured Landscapes” investigates those of the entire world.
And since the most significant new player on the global stage at the moment is China, Baichwal wisely follows Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky – famed for his surveyor’s eye ability to bring out the unreality of mines, oil fields, and other landscape-changing undertakings – as he captures in precisely framed compositions the ravages upon urban and rural landscapes a rapidly developing nation has affected through destruction, pollution, waste, and aggressive dominance. Yet when Burtynsky isn’t providing the film’s vision through his work or his example, “Manufactured Landscapes” falls just short of finding its own voice.
Nevertheless, “Manufactured Landscapes” contains some remarkable material. One gets a sense of it from Burtynsky’s photography, which the film, as if turning the floor entirely over to him, often arranges in montage sequences preceded by the artist’s own voice-over explanations. A particular series of photographs demonstrates how during the last decade and a half of economic revitalization entire Chinese villages have gradually adapted themselves into recycling stations for electronic waste, with enormous heaps of wire and metal rummaged through by masked workers attempting to salvage reusable parts. It’s stunning evidence of a scavenger culture emerging from prosperity’s forgotten debris, even if it’s merely presented as a cinematic slideshow. Elsewhere in the film, as with the opening shot, her camera mimics Burtynsky’s cool, detached gaze, resulting in the most visually impressive moments – the standout being the world’s largest engineering project, the Three Gorges Dam (also the subject of Burtynsky-esque Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke‘s new film, “Still Life“), transformed by the lens into a sentinel of earth-altering autonomy.
Toward film’s end “Manufactured Landscapes” looks at Burtynsky’s work on the gentrification of Shanghai and the gradual takeover of modern high-rises in an urban city forced to expand and efface its architecture. Here Baichwal loses sight of Burtynsky’s photography, interviewing a bourgeois real-estate agent clearly meant to serve as a subject of derision. This wrong move wouldn’t be worth pointing out if it didn’t seem so unnecessarily included at the expense of larger issues left untouched – does the beauty of Burtynsky’s work, for example, detract from a more urgent sense of the political meaning it invokes? Baichwal does a fine job bringing attention to Burtynsky and the issues which he in turn raises, but when it comes to picking up where Burtynsky leaves off, she’s only just begun.