Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky on "Manufactured Landscapes"

Glen Helfand July 16, 2007

“Manufactured Landscapes” was the title of photographer Edward Burtynsky’s major 2003 exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. It was filled with the artist’s signature works: disturbingly gorgeous photographs of massive strip mined quarries that resemble ancient temples, rivers turned blood red with the residue of nickel, and towering rusty ships that dwarf the Bangladeshi workers who dismantle them. You might call Jennifer Baichwal’s similarly titled documentary an adaptation of that show. “Manufactured Landscapes,” the film, extends an artist’s vision into a new medium, stretches the form of the biographical documentary, and engages an essential dialog about global capitalism’s impact on the planet. The film begins with an eerily beautiful, nearly nine-minute sequence panning through a seemingly infinite factory in China, a country that’s been a primary focus of Burtynsky’s recent work. Baichwal, along with Burtynsky, who usually allows his images to do the talking, sat down to discuss the film.

SF360: One of the most interesting things about ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ is that it’s a film about an artist, yet not in the conventional way. How did you decide to keep the biographical aspects in the background?

Baichwal: If we just did a film about the person who did the photographs, it would be a failure. I wanted to use the photographs as a departure point, and then extend their meaning into a time-based medium. It wasn’t easy figuring out how to do that intelligently, and to make the material come alive. Peter Mettler, the cinematographer, was very influential in that.

The opening shot is a perfect example of how to extend the scale of Ed’s photographs into a time-based medium. Something about being saturated its scale. When we finished that shot, I knew it would be the opening of the film.

Burtynsky: The sequence is like taking that photographic image and stretching it, like an accordion. My photograph was taken on my fourth trip [to China], whereas the film was shot on the fifth trip. Jennifer was aware of the image, and was thinking about how to take this factory scene and bring it into the film. Ultimately it was about extending the context of the still image, which takes out the sound, the motion of people, freezing a moment and creating a different kind of relationship to the subject. The viewer has to decipher what a still image is really about. Whereas in film, the time-based thing gives you that context, you get to see the people, hear the voices and noises of the factory. That extension of the context happens time and again through the film, it shows where these images were plucked from.

Baichwal: it also slows down your heart rate because it’s a fairly meditative film and it prepares you for what to expect in terms of rhythm in the rest of the film. It was a good way of bringing you into the world of his work.

SF360: One of the key differences between the photos and the film is that we get more of a sense of the people in these ravaged landscapes. How did you negotiate a way of presenting the human element?

Baichwal: One of the things we tried to do was to emulate the visceral experience of standing in front of one of the prints. That is very much a push/pull between the wide view and the detail. You’re confronted with the scale, but because Ed uses a 4×5 camera you can go in really close and see a tiny dot that is a person and if you follow that person you can see these inherent narratives. For me, the film really had to go back and forth between the wide view and the detail.

We were able to achieve a level of intimacy using a long lens to explore details in the landscape. It’s a question of teasing that detail out. It was important to me, especially because we were seeing these people at work in these massive factories, to honor the individual, because everything about it is so dehumanized — not about the individual at all. There’s something about spending time with the woman who is making the mechanism for the iron. It makes a huge difference to your experience to hear her say that ‘I make 400 of these a day. This is my name.’

Burtynsky: To me it’s always interesting to show the man-altered landscape as man dwarfed in a theatre of his own making. That new sublime is actually our own technological and human expansion and progress. We no longer fear nature, we fear ourselves and our force upon the planet. I go out and look for those opportunities. Ship breaking offered that scale, of man being dwarfed against the scale of something created by man. In pictures of it, first you notice the overall effect, then the intimate, analytical breakdown.

SF360: Your work is very much about the environment, but you’re not taking the Al Gore role here. You are also somewhat dwarfed by the ecological concerns, which become the real ‘star’ of the film. What inspired this approach?

Baichwal: Ed is the author more than the subject. I wanted you to be immersed in the world and then remember the author of these frames that you’re looking at. I think biography is impossible, and the artist portrait film is a very limited arena of inquiry. It’s ripe with clichés: You see the artist in the darkroom, walking thoughtfully in the landscape. It’s in every one of those films and I don’t want to use that language.

I also wanted to express the photographs and make them meaningful in film, with Ed always being referenced as the author rather than saying where did you grow up, etc. I didn’t want to do it that way at all. That could be another film. The Paul Bowles film I made (‘Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles’) was another anti-biography. He is the perfect person to meditate on the impossibility of biography as he is such a complex, deliberately wily character, always answering questions differently, lying. If you’re trying to tell the story of someone’s life, all you can really do is spend time with them and feel at the end that you know them in a way that you can’t quite describe. That was sort of what I tried to do in that film. I wasn’t set up to do that here.

Burtynsky: If you look at a documentary tradition, you can go in that arty way of ‘Koyaanisqatsi,’ which is about the pure saturation of the visual experience. On the other end would be a documentary like a Michael Moore or Al Gore film, making a point, stating arguments and creating visuals to support the arguments. Looking at the two poles, our film is a kind of hybrid, in that the narrative is coming out of casual interviews, out of at least a hundred hours of video. It gives you enough of a philosophical underpinning of the kind of thinking that’s behind the work, but not telling you how you should see it and what you should come away with.

The visuals are doing the heavy lifting of the narrative, which is what visual art does in a museum. I was happy that the film is a work of art in itself. It’s a parallel work of art with my ideas authoring the direction and the shape within which it finds its form. It’s like a meditation on the subjects that I’ve done but finding the filmic form to run along side it rather than describe it.

SF360: What was it like for you, as a filmmaker, to go into these sites that seem both gorgeous and horrific? Do these places seem as awe inspiring as they do in the photographs?

Baichwal: I have to say it really has a lot to do with Ed’s framing and the way he looks at these places that creates that sense of sublime. It’s not like you go there and it looks like that — it doesn’t. Everywhere we went, it was completely about being overwhelmed by scale. On the site of the Three Gorges Dam, it was just extraordinary to be in a place that was such a big construction site, with the density of noise. And I wondered how I could possibly tell the story in any way. Ed’s way of framing it gave us a real context in which to work. One of my favorite shots in the film is of a woman with a red scarf on her face riding her bike, a little sublime moment that just happen when you’re filming — a guy asleep at his post, an old woman sewing. All of those moments were moments of breathtaking meaning and beauty when we were filming them. Beauty on one level, but she has that scarf on her face because the air is so dirty that she can’t ride her bike without a mask. I really was working with Ed’s vision to find the beauty in those places. They were devastating environments to be in, and then to think of people living their whole lives in these places. It’s very disturbing.

SF360: In the film you talk about how so many ills of global exchange converge in China. Do you view the film as a political statement?

Burtynsky: It’s difficult when you start seeing really bad First World injustices put at the feet of the third world. They’re in harms way and they don’t know it. They’re breathing a cloud of asbestos and they don’t know. But we know. We should know better. It’s one thing when we have industrial disasters when we didn’t know that asbestos kills us. Now we know that it does. And then we put other people in harm’s way as they take apart our disposed crap. We know what’s in it.

I have difficulty with the way the world is working and the fact that because we have the knowledge and we’re not imparting it, that industry thinks something is an expedient solution and it’s destroying other people’s lives. We avert our eyes from that.

SF360: The film does offer an uncommon look at industry and the shifting landscape of China — this seems to be a focus of the film, and your recent work. Can you imagine a more fitting site that embodies your concerns?

Burtynsky: China’s a big country, and there are lots of things going on there, including some very positive things. I’m very interested in seeing some of these more positive stories come to light. They’re building some of the world’s first fully sustainable cities. And to try to help facilitate more awareness of that, we’re working with groups such as World Changing. I’m trying to find out if there’s a way to wrap our heads around these things and tell these stories.

Typically we hear the story of what China’s doing is a disaster. But they are coming to terms with the fact that this is going to get out of control if they don’t do something. It’s interesting that they are the ones that have real proposals for sustainable cities to be built. I thought that the United States, the richest country in the world, had a real chance to build sustainable cities and we lost one called New Orleans. We could have done something more imaginative. Not only did we not deal with the disaster in an appropriate manner, but the aftermath is equally shocking. There was an opportunity to think about what a city can be, what it should be.

Baichwal: Ed doesn’t just take pictures in China and there’s a whole body of work that happened before that. We make reference to that in the structure of the film going from raw materials to manufacturing, to cities and urban renewal. I was worried that because it took place mostly in China that people would think this is a film about China. Even though you’re mostly in a country that seems very far away, I wanted for you to feel directly related to what’s going on there. And we are directly related. I wanted viewers to reflect on their own participation in these cycles and to be in these places that you’re responsible for, but would never go to, would never see under normal circumstances. That’s what the photographs do. I’ve been gratified by the response of people who see it, who immediately realize that ‘I’m right there, I’m part of this thing.’ We live so flagrantly in consuming and throwing away, consuming and throwing away.

Burtynsky: We’re fully implicated in those scenes because not only is it the consumptive engine that’s buying all that stuff, it’s the people, it’s this culture that’s invented the machines that we see at work over there. They didn’t make those machines — we made those machines. It was our engineers and our industrial designers who created this mechanized operation. It’s wrought large and replicated on an unimaginable scale in China. But it’s all made here in the West, we created all of it, we just transport it for cheap labor.

Baichwal: Cheap labor and no environmental regulations — that combination is lethal. And that’s why everybody’s over there.

SF360: Do you plan to continue working in China?

Burtynsky: I haven’t been since my fifth trip, but I do think I’ll return in the next year or two. I’m keeping abreast of the changes. That story is big and still unfolding.