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Decreasing poverty is good for the human race. But increasing wealth and industrialization aren’t cost-free. Manufactured Landscapes presents a visual record of some those costs: mountains of garbage, denuded mountains, and dense populations of dehumanized factory workers.

Manufactured Landscapes is made with the participation of photographer Edward Burtynsky. His large-format prints — probably 3 or 4 feet square — contain so much detail that at first they catch your eye as an abstract pile of noise. On closer inspection, you see that there is amazing detail; the noise is made of individual points of data such as human figures in a rubble landscape, or plastic toys in piles of e-waste.

Meet the people who made your clothes iron
Meet the people who made your clothes iron

I first saw Manufactured Landscapes years ago at the International Film Series in Boulder. Since then I’ve noticed many like-minded documentaries such as Our Daily Bread and Waste Land that record the changes industrialization is making on our world. The most recent example I saw is City World. The culmination of this series for me is Ron Fricke’s Samsara. I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic speculation, and I love how haunted and eerie the landscapes in these movies seem.

Marvel at the sheer size of human industry (or is that human folly?). Burtynsky says he started with photographs of mines that had been operating for decades, leaving enormous scars on the landscape. Other large-scale sights, all in China, are coal fields, roll call at a massive factory, and the Three Gorges Dam.

Director Jennifer Baichwal follows Burtynsky to a shipyard where tiny human figures weld steel and ships are born. It makes me wonder if Nantucket, U.S.A. might have looked the same 200 years ago. But before spending too long here, the movie cuts to a low-tide beach in Bangladesh where ships go to die. Different people use the same welders to chop these leviathans into pieces. Partially disassembled ships leak petrochemicals onto the beach. The crude is scooped up in buckets by hand. It’s a young man’s job and it’s a cheap man’s job.

Cutting from birth to death sparks thoughts and emotions that aren’t literally on the screen. You shake your head at the waste. Couldn’t the builders do more to repair and maintain their ships? Why are the builders paid so well and the scavengers so little? Baichwal does the same thing to us earlier in the film. A very early sequence shows yellow-shirted factory workers in China meticulously assembling clothes irons. At the end of the sequence Baichwal cuts to yesterday’s iron on an enormous heap of industrial junk being picked through by a different set of workers.

I don’t know if Burtynsky makes the connection in his shows by the placement of his photos. But making that kind of connection is something film is very good at. Perhaps that’s why Manufactured Landscapes feels like a fascinating documentary in its own right, and not just a document of Burtynsky’s work.

The final word goes to my astute wife Andrea, who said, “It’s economic, not military.” She was explaining that we rarely see the sort of spectacle that goes in to Manufactured Landscapes. When we used to see images of humanity as far as the eye can see, it was scenes of military might. It was Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will showing impressive formations, sheer numbers, and ant-colony discipline. Manufactured Landscapes shows that those sorts of images now belong to the realm of economic might, not military might.

Blu-ray Extras

The extra features on the Blu-ray disc are an interview with Peter Mettler, Cinematographer; a discussion with the filmmaker and her subject (Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky); extended scenes; and a theatrical trailer.

The interview is not exciting, but it is very short. Mettler’s views give you a quick glance at the man behind the camera. The “discussion” is a bit longer, but still palatably short. It’s conducted by a Toronto producer who asks some interesting questions about the artist and the documentarian.

The extended scenes — mostly footage from Shanghai — didn’t do much for me, nor did the theatrical trailer

Picture and Sound

Manufactured Landscapes is made from several different sources, and the quality varies from source to source. The ship graveyard scenes are made from low-resolution video shot in the 1990s, and Blu-ray does nothing to help. However, when Baichwal has a stable camera and the time to set up a shot, the detail from the Blu-ray disc is excellent. This is the right kind of film for a high-definition medium.

How to Use This Blu-ray Disc

Watch the movie. Be awed. Watch the interview and the discussion if you are so inclined. Skip the trailer and the extended scenes.