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Awfully Beautiful

Jennifer Baichwal’s 2007 documentary Manufactured Landscapes hypnotizes from the outset with a speechless, point-of-view shot of a walk from one end to another of a Chinese factory floor.  Row after row of uniformed workers quietly assemble components of an unknown product—what are they making, how long do they do this every day, and when will we reach the end of this seemingly infinite hive?  A strange mix of monotony, fascination, and horror combine in this and other images, as Baichwal and husband, cinematographer Nick de Pencier, accompany Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky on a journey to capture the industrial landscapes of Asia on film.  Burtynsky’s compositions frame mine tailings, freeway systems, quarries, and hazy skylines with the studied eye of a landscape photographer.  Manufactured Landscapes follows him to a Chinese town where picking through acres of discarded computers for valuable “e-waste” has become a cottage industry, and to a muddy shore in Bangladesh, where mammoth decommissioned oil tankers are cut apart and sold for scrap by barefoot and poorly paid young men.  He shows us factory workers making fans to cool American homes, irons for our wrinkled clothes, and fuses for the breaker boxes in our basements.  In the shadow of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, we see some of the over 1 million Chinese it displaced now employed in dismantling the cities they once called home, building by building, to make way for flooding.  Baichwal follows Burtynsky’s lead in holding back from explicit commentary or explanation.  We hear voiceovers of the photographer describing certain conditions and events, but like Burtynsky’s still photos, Manufactured Landscapes leaves viewers alone to wonder at and contemplate the effects of massive industrial projects on the land and sea.  It is difficult to look away from the awfulness he so beautifully renders as Baichwal and de Pencier’s cameras look on (the pair’s documentary feature about lightning strike victims, Act of God is also not to be missed), but impossible to come away from Manufactured Landscapes without a broader feeling for the relationships, and ultimate cost, of the simplest aspects of our daily lives.  – Dan C., Collection Development


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