By John DeFore
Photographer Edward Burtynsky, the subject of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes, makes art out of the modern world’s refuse, traveling the globe to document waste heaps so vast they resemble the ruins of ancient civilizations: building-sized piles of discarded plastic parts, shipyards full of rusting freighter hulls, house-sized piles of rotary-dial telephones. The scale of his images makes them simultaneously fascinating and terrifying, prodding the spectator to consider how his lifestyle here leaves a moonscape of waste in hidden parts of the globe — where, for instance, whole villages scrounge through discarded PCs, digging through toxic substances to get recyclable metals, which they the sell to make a living.
The documentary’s often grainy image can’t compete with the vivid resolution of Burtynsky’s large-format photos, which have been featured in a number of monographs. But director Baichwal and cinematographer Peter Mettler compensate by employing cinema’s advantages over still photography — tracking their camera steadily across infinite factory floors and employing unsettlingly long scenes of repeated assembly-line action, showing us the monotonous action behind the epic static images for which Burtynsky is known.
Burtynsky himself may strive to avoid editorializing about the scenes he photographs, but the images themselves (and the film’s examination of the places they are set) are inherently political. They give new life to discussions about subjects (globalization, conservation, consumerism) that may seem dry elsewhere, but here become vividly real — which makes for a film holding equal appeal on two rarely overlapping fronts, fine art and environmentalism.