BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: shifting nature.

IT WOULD be stating the bleeding obvious to say that humans have an impact on the environment. And given the massive economic explosion that’s occurred over the last few hundred years, it’s easy to see that there are consequences from our behaviour. While the nineteenth century literature and art was full of depictions of the sometimes traumatic shift through industrialisation, it’s been rare to see a society in flux being captured in film in contemporary times. China’s economic development has been no secret, and it’s proving a fertile ground for artists. Part of the reason it appeals for artists is the sheer scale of the development – the eight minute long tracking shot that sets up Manufactured Landscapes through a factory is just a small reminder of what is going on in China.

The documentary follows Edward Burtynsky a photographer who is well-known for his large-scale pictures of humankind ‘creating’ landscapes. Manufacturing Landscapes incorporates Burtynsky’s photographs, film footage following Burtynsky and archive footage. The documentary manages to meld the three together in a dreamy, hazy kind of way. Burtynsky’s photos (and the film) seek to re-contextualise what we’re doing to the environment – it’s hard to get the ‘big picture’ when you’re looking at a “Made in China” home appliance, or when you’re looking at a standard picture of a factory. The scale of the photos gives a much sharper view of what’s going on, and the effects we’re having. Burtynsky’s narration occasionally speaks over the images which range from China’s development, to Bangladeshis working on the beach dismantling ships to people looking at his artwork. His major focus is on China though, and he manages to wring some startling imagery out of the people and the ‘manufactured landscapes’. For example, photos are taken of the Three Gorges Dam, super-factories, monumental piles of e-waste, and hollowed out mines.

But the photographs, while the film’s centrepiece, are only part of the film. The documentary is as much about Burtynsky as it is about the photographs he ends up making. The film’s major flaw is that we don’t really know who he is, the contexts, anything beyond the striking imagery and the occasional voiceover. There’s a disconnect between the photographs and the film we’re witnessing, in an emotional or in an intellectual sense. The scabrous juxtaposition of a real estate agent and a solitary stubborn ‘old’ apartment owner in Shanghai is one of the few hints at something deeper going on. And while the ambiguity works well (the film tries its best not to be agenda-setting, as that would be stating the bleeding obvious), it can leave the audience a bit cold. Much like documentaries like Koyaanisqatsi and its exotically titled brethren, while the images are frequently awesome (in its literal sense, not its colloquial sense), they’re occasionally emotionally devoid, and consequently a little banal. (Documentaries like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil are the benchmark on how to make an emotionally moving essay film.) Manufactured Landscapes is like looking at a pretty photograph, albeit a mind-blowing one. No more, no less.