There is nothing that says, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” quite like a trip to China with Edward Burtynsky, an internationally known Canadian photographer. In a recent film he takes us there for a tour of the detritus of industrial civilization–the mines; the junk heaps; the blackened, desolated landscapes. When the occasional person crops up, that person is the victim of a vast industrial combine that seems to have no head and no tail. If one were angry at it, one wouldn’t know exactly where to strike. Certainly, not at these poor people.
Burtynsky’s visit to China and a side trip to Bangladesh are the subject of a documentary entitled Manufactured Landscapes. I literally had nightmares after seeing it. Not that it sets out to be a horror film. Burtynsky’s calm, measured voice starts out telling us that for much of his career he has been trying to catalogue the effects of industrial society, effects that result in what he calls “manufactured landscapes.” For most of the film Burtynsky just lets the action and the pictures speak for themselves as we quietly survey scene after disturbing scene. As we watch, we observe him displaying all the sophistication of a first-rate fine art photographer in his meticulous attention to composition, lighting and color. The results are his disconcerting photos that seem as if they could be exhibits in a civil trial, albeit one that takes place in the world’s finest art galleries. And, that is the horror of it all. Burtynsky creates beautifully done photography that silently draws the eye to it and into it, and thereby draws one deep into the horror of the subject matter itself.
Burtynsky says he refrains from politicizing his work. He is not holding a referendum on whether industrial society on balance is good or bad. It would be too easy for people just to vote yes or no, he explains. Rather, he wants viewers to look at things they rarely see–the extractive and industrial processes that make our modern lives possible and the waste–the piles and piles and piles of waste–that result. He wants viewers to look at these things deeply, carefully, quietly, with a patient gaze.
Along on the trip are director Jennifer Baichwal and her film crew who do more than simply record Burtynsky’s actions and photos. They do some observing for themselves, showing us a motion-picture version of Burtynsky’s manufactured landscapes. Inside Chinese factories we are treated to repetitive manual assembly operations that make one’s wrists hurt just from watching. We see young, barefoot Bangladeshi men bailing crude oil out of a half-open, beached oil tanker which is being disassembled for scrap. We get brief interviews with young Chinese factory workers who brag about their prowess, their productivity and the reputation of their employers, all without conveying the slightest awareness that their bodies (particularly their wrists) are being used up to keep costs to a minimum.
Beyond the cumulative environmental and workplace horrors of China’s economic juggernaut, viewers feel themselves dwarfed by the scale of operations they witness. They are treated by turns to a seemingly endless factory assembly building; a massive shipyard; a high-rise apartment next to the squat, densely packed residences of old Shanghai; and finally to the construction site of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest. The scale is vast. But that in itself is not so troubling. It is the momentum that these places convey.
China is a society with huge built-in momentum that is everywhere on display in this film. To politically and sociologically aware eyes it does not seem possible that anything could deflect Chinese society from its current course, save a brick wall–perhaps in the form of peak oil or massive drought or plague. It is to this thought that I think I owe my nightmares. For one wishes neither for China’s current course to continue, nor for the arrival of those things which seem potent enough to stop it.
It is hard enough to imagine North America and Europe coming to their senses and embarking on a crash program for creating a sustainable society. After seeing Manufactured Landscapes, it is all but impossible to imagine China embarking on such a course. With a population of 1.3 billion of which tens of millions stream each year from the countryside into the cities; a hypercaffeinated growth rate of 10 percent which is necessary to create jobs for all those urban arrivals; and greenhouse gas emissions now surpassing those of the United States would it be unfair to say that as goes China, so goes the world? That is the stuff from which nightmares are manufactured.