Yesterday I saw "Manufactured Landscapes," a Canadian documentary expanding upon the breathtaking photography of Edward Burtynsky, whose work captures the transformation of human environments by industrial processes, whether mining, consumer products manufacturing, ship construction, or oil rigging. The film mostly follows Burtynsky in China, where he visits villages decimated by toxic landfills of "e-waste" (our old computers); the Three Gorges dam project, which has displaced 1.2 million people and submerged 11 former cities under water; the immense factory compounds that employ thousands of young Chinese men and women under military-like expectations of order; and burgeoning Shanghai, where high-rises and suburban plots are replacing shantytowns.
"Manufactured Landscapes" is so starkly different from popular American political documentaries such as "Sicko" and "An Inconvienant Truth" that it almost qualifies as a separate genre. Neither fast-paced nor polemic, the film is less like a feature-length op-ed column than a magazine photo essay. Devoid of much narration or even analysis (tall apartment buildings are presented solely as displacers of the poor, for example, but they are also far more environmentally-friendly), you won’t necessarily win a political argument with what you’ll learn from this film. But you will have a more complete idea of how our consumer culture is made possible by and starkly affects the livelihoods of people in far-off parts of the world.
Photo courtesy of edwardburtynsky.com.