The first five minutes of the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” consists of a long tracking shot down the aisle of an immense Chinese factory as thousands of workers sit at long tables assembling goods of an indeterminate nature. Most wear company-color yellow shirts or jackets suggesting worker bees in some enormous hive, where one works until one dies. The scene will also remind you of the concluding moments of the documentary “In the Pit,” which consists of a lengthy aerial view of the mammoth elevated highway construction project in Mexico City. “Manufactured Landscapes” shares the Mexican film’s sense of awe over large-scale capitalist development projects but is mixed with dread over their ultimate impact on humanity and nature.
“Manufactured Landscapes” was inspired by the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian who specializes in landscapes of the most sterile and industrialized places on earth, particularly in China where the government is on a forced march to “modernize”. The documentary follows Burtynsky and his crew around China, as we see some of the most dramatic examples of the hyper-growth that is attracting investor dollars from around the world. As a skilled artist (we see many examples of his work throughout the film), Burtynsky manages to draw out the beauty of vast piles of coal, rusting ships, construction projects, factory interiors, etc. But as becomes clear in his travels around China, he feels that the impact on the environment ultimately threatens the “modernization” project itself.
This is seen most dramatically in one village’s involvement in recycling computers shipped in from the West that are scavenged for their precious metals. Called “E-Waste,” the discarded parts have polluted streams and rivers nearby the recycling centers to the point that water has to be shipped in. On April 10, 2006, Salon Magazine reported:
A parade of trucks piled with worn-out computers and electronic equipment pulls away from container ships docked at the port of Taizhou in the Zhejiang Province of southeastern China. A short distance inland, the trucks dump their loads in what looks like an enormous parking lot. Pools of dark oily liquid seep from under the mounds of junked machinery. The equipment comes mostly from the United States, Europe and Japan.
For years, developed countries have been exporting tons of electronic waste to China for inexpensive, labor-intensive recycling and disposal. Since 2000, it’s been illegal to import electronic waste into China for this kind of environmentally unsound recycling. But tons of debris are smuggled in with legitimate imports, corruption is common among local officials, and China’s appetite for scrap is so enormous that the shipments just keep on coming.
In Taizhou’s outdoor workshops, people bang apart the computers and toss bits of metal into brick furnaces that look like chimneys. Split open, the electronics release a stew of toxic materials — among them beryllium, cadmium, lead, mercury and flame retardants — that can accumulate in human blood and disrupt the body’s hormonal balance. Exposed to heat or allowed to degrade, electronics’ plastics can break down into organic pollutants that cause a host of health problems, including cancer. Wearing no protective clothing, workers roast circuit boards in big, uncovered woklike pans to melt plastics and collect valuable metals. Other workers sluice open basins of acid over semiconductors to remove their gold, tossing the waste into nearby streams. Typical wages for this work are about $2 to $4 a day.
Edward Burtynsky first became inspired to capture such images after taking a wrong turn in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s when he happened upon a huge coal pit. He was so mesmerized by the sheer power of the vista, as ugly as it was, and shocked by the damage to nature, that he resolved to make photographing such scenes the focus of his career.
He is not the typical photographer. As a teenager, he worked in automobile assembly plants and gold mines in Northern Ontario. Although he refrains from editorializing in his photographs (as does this very fine documentary), it is very clear that he is appalled by this spectacle of “progress”. In one scene, he shows a neighborhood in Shanghai that has been razed in order to make way for spanking-new high rises, with the exception of one old house whose elderly female inhabitant refuses to move. The high rises were simply built around her. The million or so villagers who were about to lose their homes because of the construction of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam had no choice. The film shows them being paid by the government to demolish their homes to make way for the new reservoir that will be created by the dam.
On Burtynsky’s website, he puts forward his vision:
Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.
These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.
“Manufactured Landscapes” was directed by Jennifer Baichwal and opens at the Film Forum in New York on June 20. Highly recommended.