Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes: Images of industry in the new China

If watching the Olympics has piqued your interest in modern China, you'll be fascinated by the 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes and the China-related exhibitions of Edward Burtynsky.

Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer whose interest is portraying "industrial incursions". Consequently Burtynsky found all kinds of inspiration in China, a nation powered by coal that manufactures enormous amounts of goods not only for the United States, but for its own population of over a billion.

In Manufactured Landscapes, director Jennifer Baichwal follows Burtynsky through China and Bangladesh as he performs his work. We see endless ranks of uniformed factory workers, eager residents chipping apart e-waste for scrap metal, aisles of crates at the port of Tianjin, new ships built to transport the goods, old ships broken apart with bare hands and a blowtorch, residents displaced by the Three Gorges Dam who are forced to tear down their home cities, mountains and mountains of coal extending into the horizon, shantytowns in the old Shanghai overshadowed by new skyscrapers just blocks away, and so on. If this imagery sounds depressing, it can be, but as Burtynsky's assistant explains to some skeptical Chinese coal field administrators, through his camera lens, "he'll make it look beautiful."

Neither Baichwal nor Burtynsky preach about what they are showing. They present the story with pictures and allow the viewer to grapple with the awesome and disturbing feelings the images invoke.

Viewing this film will forever change the way you understand the stamp "Made in China". One lesson I took away from Manufactured Landscapes is that everything we consume, from food to electronics to electricity, has a beginning and an end that we rarely see. The beginning and the end places may not be pretty and they may be far away from our homes where we consume the item. This makes it easy to forget the environmental and human cost of what we consume, which might rise far above the sticker price at Target or Wal-Mart.

Manufactured Landscapes is appropriate to watch with older children (toddlers will lose interest) and will provoke some good family discussion from the very opening scene.

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