I’m depressed. I just watched “Manufactured Landscapes”, (2006) and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do. It’s a pretty intense documentary, featuring amazing photography by Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky creates some powerful imagery of some of the most unlikely subjects – largely industrial wasteland. Coal mines, dams, factories (the opening shot shows the inside of a factory over three quarters of a kilometer long), parking lots, construction sites, destruction sites, you name it. It’s compelling stuff – the beauty in his photos is moving, yet discomforting. The reality he brings to the viewer is a bit overwhelming; this stuff IS our world, today.
The film is set in China, largely, though the narration points out that this industrial development is global; almost all of the products being pieced together in factories throughout China consist of raw materials shipped in from around the globe, then shipped back off to meet demand overseas. The stark reality here is that China’s environmental problem is our problem; insatiable demand from the “developed” world is altering not just the landscape, but the land itself.
Burtynsky captures this sense of the land much as a more orthodox landscape photographer might hope to. His eye for composition presents gripping graphic images; subtleties of light interact with his subjects, creating a tension that, for me, is spellbinding. The paradox of shooting such debris, for example, a metal scrapyard, with such an eye for beauty is unanswerable. The ambivalence or duality of expressing beauty in toxic garbage has me grappling with the situation; and I think THAT struggle is what really gives the film its power.
Comparisons to Scorcese’s “Koyaanisqatsi” are inevitable, but I found “Manufactured Landscapes” somewhat more connectable. It hit home, in part, I suspect, because Burtynsky shot the film with such neutrality. He states in the film that he tries to not say ‘this is bad‘ or ‘this is good‘ in his work, but leaves that open to the viewer. His message is both simpler and more powerful; ‘this is what is‘.
I think the film would lose some of its power had he set out to say ‘industrial development is toxic‘; his knack is to simply show industrial development and leave the judgement to the audience. Here the film becomes more abstract, and an infinite array of questions arise for the audience as a result.
Burtynsky’s film presents the viewer with a reality that we have somehow cultivated an amazing ability to simply not see. We all live this life, and consume endlessly, but largely pretend this is not ‘us‘, it’s always ‘them‘.
Watching a Chinese family sift through piles of metallic debris 150’ tall had me squirming on the couch; knowing I have a 20″ iMac computer sitting on a table in my room right now, that needs to be ‘tossed‘. How do I dispose of this broken computer? I can take it to a recycling center, which is largely a code-name we’ve created to not feel so bad about our waste. The bulk of this stuff isn’t recycled, it’s landfill.
How long will my new computer last? I got barely 5 years out of this last one, and the logic board (it’s 2nd) is gone. I ordered a new computer, and it’s faulty; Apple are now sending me a new one. I got the tracking info via email this morning and a shiny new 21.5″ iMac left Shanghai, China at 6:15pm. Cruel justice that tonight I watch “Manufactured Landscapes“, a film that powerfully exposes this kind of waste, consumerism, destruction and sheer devastation for what it is. The finger points squarely at myself.
And yet, now I sit here listening to “One Quiet Night“, by Pat Metheny, on iTunes, typing a blog on my computer. The kilowatts are, I’m sure to be reminded tomorrow, running up. I just watched a documentary that shows the despoliation of building the 3 Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, built largely to provide electricity to a growing industrial nation. A dam so large it displaced 3 cities, possibly as many as 1 200 000 people, and caused the earth to wobble on its axis as it filled with water.
The electricity generated in China is largely in order to produce commodities for people like myself, far across the world, who have little real need for them.
The other uncertainty in the film is the question ‘what do we do about this?‘ It’s so clearly a problem of such scale that nobody really knows. I certainly don’t. All I can say, unfortunately, is we need to do better. As Burtynsky says in the film; ‘it’s not a simple right or wrong – we need a whole new way of thinking‘.
Watch the film. Amazing stuff. And, if you can, figure out what we do about this mess.