Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, the nominal subject of this documentary, makes perversely lovely images of epic environmental degradation. His subjects include rivers of toxic waste, massive strip-mine scars, and mounds of computer junk. Director Jennifer Baichwal must admire his work—why else make this film?—and yet she apparently distrusts it as well. While the photographer says he doesn’t want to tell people what to see— focusing instead on near-abstract forms and colors—Baichwal pulls back, revealing the human misery within the still lifes. Manufactured Landscapes, which takes its title from a 2003 book of Burtynsky’s photographs, opens with an eight-minute tracking shot of a massive Chinese factory, where identically outfitted, dronelike workers labor. Later, the movie shows digital-age serfs in formation outside company-town dormitories, or rooting through piles of techno trash for salvageable materials, or dismembering old tankers while trying to keep their footing in ponds of toxic muck. (The last sequence was shot in Bangladesh, in one of the film’s few detours from China.) The most revealing contrast is the gap between New York gallery attendees, who accept Burtynsky’s images as art, and the Chinese officials who try to bar him from a massive coal dump. They know the site they oversee is ugly, and they’re skeptical when an unidentified person—one of Burtynsky’s assistants, apparently—explains that the administrators needn’t worry, because the photographer will make the place appear beautiful. Baichwal and her adept cinematographer, Peter Mettler, feel no obligation to perform such alchemy. They find plenty of hideous sights in the landscapes Burtynsky renders attractive. Yet no one openly questions the photographer’s art. The result is a documentary that insists on a restraint that borders on incoherence. For all its cool, though, Manufactured Landscapes offers appalling views of the ravaged Third World. Baichwal doesn’t actually say anything about the human cost of global industrialization, but it’s clear that she sees it, even if Burtynsky doesn’t.