Canadian Edward Burtynsky takes beautiful large-scale photographs of landscapes that have been industrially altered by mankind to the very extreme. The documentary Manufactured Landscapes by Toronto-based filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal now visits, along with the photographer, places in China and Bangladesh and shows how these amazing pictures are taken. It gives you with a weird as well as surreal experience of the grotesque and grim consequences of mass production. For example, fifty percent of all world‘s computers end up in China, amongst many other used materials… You don’t have to be too ecologically minded, but this documentary will leave you thinking, no doubt. PingMag talked to Jennifer Baichwal about her consciousness-raising film.
Written by Verena
Director Jennifer Baichwal (left) and Edward Burtynsky. (right) on a roof in Wushan, China. (Photo by Sanjay Mehta)
Jennifer, how did the whole Manufactured Landscapes film project start?
I have known Edward Burtynsky’s work for a long time and became really interested when he started doing the quarry photographs. I find them such a beautiful metaphor, it is the literal hole in the ground that we create when we need the materials for civilization. The project then came to me when the photographer, who traveled around with Edward, approached our producing partner Daniel Iron with around 60 hours of home movie footage and was looking for someone who could make this into a film. So I was watching the footage, realizing that I might need something else. I started meeting with Edward and the whole project came together very quickly: incredibly, we managed to raise all of the money in Canada in about four months.
How long did the shooting take?
We were in China for three and a half weeks in 2005, shooting on Super 16 with heavy camera work. Before that, we took pictures of Edward’s lecture at the TED conference. And we incorporated the black-and-white photography that was taken by said photographer with his video cam.
This is where it starts… Edward Burtynsky: “Shipyard #11″, Shipyard at Qili Port, Zhejiang Province, China.
This isn’t the usual portrait of a person, it’s about his subjects…
I didn’t want to make a conventional portrait of an artist. What would be really important is to use the photographs as a departure point and extend their meaning into the medium of film. They are trying to shift consciousness non-didactically: they don’t want to preach or give you a message, instead just inviting you into an arena of reflection about your own impact on the planet. Also, if you look at Ed’s photographs closer you see the details – hundreds of people with their activities. We were trying to follow these narrative threads with the film, because with the close-ups of people’s faces we wanted to dignify the individual in this completely undignified landscape.
Which scene was the most significant, or difficult, to shoot for you?
The opening dolly shot was a big moment. [For our readers: the sequence shot takes nearly 7 minutes at the beginning of the film.] It took all day to shoot in this huge iron factory and as soon as we were finished I knew that this was going to be the opening. I found it the perfect translation of Edward’s work into film, because the only way to convey the scale of the factory in a time-based medium is: you have to sit through and watch station after station of the assembly. You think this is just the opening sequence, but then it goes on and you get bored and start looking at people’s faces. Then you get saturated in the idea that this place is enormous. And it’s only after all this that Edward’s voice comes in [as voice-over]. Also, as the whole film is fairly meditative, the opening shot also serves to slow you down.
I found it incredibly moving to watch the sequence at the Three Gorges Dam in China: how people have to tear down their own homes to pave what would be the waterway for the ships to go through. And they are getting paid for the bricks by the kilo…
It looks like a post-war landscape, when you realize: people are tearing their own houses down solely by hand, brick by brick. The other tragedy is that so much of the most fertile farmland in China was lost, let alone the whole civilization and culture. It is so arrogant to change the earth so radically – for electricity.
There are so much more quite telling and intense scenes demonstrating the environmental impact. Surely you were a conscious person already, but did your attitude change even more during the filming in China?
China is an overwhelming country, to begin with, and the scale of everything is massive. I have never been in factories of these sizes like the one we went before. It makes 20 million flat-irons a year. The aluminum recycling yard we visited is the third largest in the world. They ship everything from all over the world over there. Seeing the Sisyphean task of these people sorting through these enormous piles of aluminum, I became much more aware of the particularities of the cycles of consumption and waste that we all engage in – and how devastating they are.
I guess we just can’t blame China trying to keep up with the industrialized nations…
China has done what every other country has done: industrialize, get incredibly filthy, make money, then clean up and export the dirt to another country that hasn’t gone through the same process yet. The problem is that the scale is so much bigger in China and now it’s under pressure because every dirty industry in the world has been invited to set up there. There is a chance that whole zones will collapse before they will be able to deal with it. Which was so incredibly sobering…
I wonder how people can actually live in these areas…
In one scene we were in the largest coal distribution center of China, where it gets transported throughout the country with trucks, trains, ships. As far as you could see there were these massive piles of coal. As we drove a bit away we realized that we had a nuclear power plant in one corner and the huge coal in the other – with in between all this construction going on, and the ground we stood on had no organic matter left in it: it was like ash. But this wasn’t some industrial part away from residential civilization. It was in the midst of apartments with thousands of people living there. I just thought: we are all headed for this if we don’t stop.
How did audiences react after the screenings in several festivals you attended?
First, Manufactured Landscapes was edited for about eight months, a long process of relative isolation. When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival [which got him an award as best Canadian feature] that was the first time that more than two people other than me saw it: it was pretty heavy watching it and there was this kind of silence after the last scene. But then people clapped and everything went well. Since then I watched it many times with audiences and always people ask afterwards: ‘Where do we go from here?’
Finally, tell us, please, about your next project…
Currently we are trying to support the release in the States and Europe, and in between we are shooting our next movie: about people being struck by lightning. I see lightning as a kind of metaphor for the paradox of being singled out by chance. We are doing various interviews, for example with novel author Paul Auster who experienced a lightning as a child and the person in front of him died. I think it must have affected his work to a great deal, like his obsession with chance and fate. I have never been satisfied with scientific documentaries as they all follow a conventional formula dispensing information that is unquestioned. So this will be an art film about a scientific subject.
Lightning is uncontrollable. Manufactured landscapes are the opposite…
Not exactly. We started something in motion which we are no longer in control of. But we are very much responsible for it!
Thank you so much, Jennifer Baichwal, for your great documentary! I guess nobody will watch Manufactured Landscapes unmoved. It was quite sobering as well as surreal, indeed.
Further screening info: there might be a release soon in Europe and Asia, check out the Mercury Films site or Celluloid Dreams. Also, Manufactured Landscapes is available on DVD, once more from the great Mongrel Media. You can get it via Amazon Canada.