Manufactured Landscapes – a film review.

Colorful duplex and garden, Orsono, Chile.

Colorful duplex and garden, Orsono, Chile. Please click the image to view a larger version of the photo.

Hey Folks,

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.



6 thoughts on “Manufactured Landscapes – a film review.

  1. Mark

    Hey Carl, I have actually had this on my Netflix list for awhile, I just keep putting others in front of it. Guess it is time to bump it to the top. Thanks for the review.

    On the old tech, I think we had some conversations in the past about the nat geo article I think – how so much of this stuff gets sent overseas. Apple has a section on their site where they say they comply with the Basel Convention, so that is a good start.

    I wonder if they will also take my old scanners and printers sitting in my basement? I am nervous as hell turning it over to someone if I don’t know exactly where it will be broken down and used.

  2. Carl D Post author

    Hey Mark

    Bump it.

    Yeah, I’m aiming to ship off the old broken iMac once I get the monitor issue with the new one resolved. The comment about your “old scanners and printers sitting in the basement” leads me to another comment, see below. 🙂

    Thanks for dropping in.



  3. Carl D Post author

    Hey Folks,

    I was asked, via email this question:

    “I had a question regarding the sentence where you suggest that all this stuff (e.g. computers) is made in China and shippped across the globe to folks who have little need for them. Can you kindly explain the bit about “little need?” While China does produce many items that are not of much use, such as toys and trinklets, etc., computers as serving an important purpose in our daily lives. Do you think otherwise?

    My response is yes, I do think otherwise. Computer technology is somewhat incestuous, in that it feeds upon itself. A quick look at the peripherals of any computer system reflects this; backup HDs, printers, software, etc, etc. All of it designed to be obsolete in a relatively short time. One of the benefits on my newer computer is that the old one, at just over 4 years of age, couldn’t work with a new $250.00 camcorder. That’s insane. My new camera, a D300s, is not compatible with Adobe Photoshop CS3 or earlier. The list of that kind of example is endless. What generation of ipod are they on now? We don’t need any of that any more than we need the next Britney Spears album.

    Are they important? Sure. But do we need an endless influx of technology like this? I’d submit no, we don’t. Do we ‘need’ computers? Well, writer and intellectual Wendell Berry is famous for this essay and response to the question. His points are as valid today, perhaps, as they were in 1987 when he wrote that.

    Secondly, and perhaps more critically, the actual processing power of the computer and the monitor is not even the grit that lies on the tip of the iceberg. Video games, iPhones, mp3 players, etc, etc are the vast majority of the production referenced above. If the production were reduced to merely ‘computers’, then I suspect the film would never have even been shot.



  4. steps protect environment

    Evil plain and simple. Humans are the most destructive life-forms on the earth and take the lives of the living(plants,animals,insects and other humans) every day without care or thought.

  5. Summer Picnic

    Heya Carl,

    I just got sucked in to this documentary this morning on the Sundance Channel, initially arrested by Burtynsky’s striking images that morphed from beautiful to disturbing and back. An hour later, I’m depressed too–yet on the computer. Thank you for the thoughtful post (sorry, I don’t have any answers either) and for the link to the delightful Wendell Berry essay.

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