Picture on Picture: filmmaker animates photographer’s "Manufactured Landscapes"
Bright primary colors contradict the grim mechanical behavior of hundreds of factory workers in a row occupied with their assigned repetitive duties to twist a wire, to test a spray bottle, to drill a part. Photographer Edward Burtynsky frames the scene with an artist’s eye, balancing beauty with the beast, catching the electric blue bandanas, the cadmium yellow uniforms and the white sunlight from the windows. Snap: a modern portrait of industrialization.
In the Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Documentary, "Manufactured Landscapes," a film crew follows Burtynsky on his journey to China as he photographs mountains of global byproduct, shipbuilding yards and mega-cities.
Burtynsky’s large-scale photos will hang on the 18-foot high white walls of Park City’s Julie Nester gallery throughout the Sundance Film Festival to accompany the film.
"This will be our third Sundance Film Festival, but our first tie-in with a Sundance film," says Doug Nester, who co-owns the gallery with his wife, Julie. "Burtynsky’s work shows in every major gallery in the U.S. and also in London, Madrid and Barcelona. It’s truly a compliment to have him here."
The film, which integrates Burtynsky’s photographs with footage from his 2004 trip to China, received the Best Canadian Feature Film Award at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, as well as awards for best documentary at the Atlantic and Calgary Film Festivals.
Since its world premiere the Toronto Festival, it has continued to play in theaters throughout Toronto and has been compared to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as a film that delivers a powerful reminder of how countries throughout the world continue to damage the planet in pursuit of industry and economic gain.
Manufactured Landscapes director Jennifer Baichwal says her film delivers a very similar message, but in a different style. A large part of the reason the film has been so well received is because the Burtynsky images that inspire its scenes are less instructive and more experiential, she says.
"The most interesting thing to me about Ed’s work is that he manages to shift environmental consciousness in a very non-didactic way which I think is very powerful. These images are aesthetically incredibly seductive," she says.
"When faced with one of Ed’ photographs, you’re faced with beautiful colors and then look closer you realize you’re looking at densified oil filters or billions of tiny electric parts or toy parts and you realize you’re looking at garbage."
This year Baichwal makes her second trip as a director of a Sundance documentary. In 2003, she entered the festival with a film that also followed a photographer at work, "The True Meaning of Moving Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia." Her first feature documentary, "Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles," won a 1999 International Emmy Award for best arts documentary and was nominated for a Genie Award for best feature documentary.
Baichwal typically teams up with her husband, Nick de Pencier, who was the cinematographer and co-producer of "Let It Come Down" and "The True Meaning of Moving Pictures." While de Pencier helped to co-produce "Manufactured Landscapes," he stayed at home with their two children while Baichwal went to China. For this project, Pete Mettler, who made the film "Gambling Gods and LSD," became director of photography.
Baichwal says that Burtynsky had seen "The True Meaning of Moving Pictures" and that it was one of the reasons why he was convinced to cooperate with the project.
Although this marks the second time that Baichwal has attempted to make a film based on the work of a photographer, she still concedes that it is very difficult to represent one medium in another.
"I thought if I just showed the photographs in the film, it would have been a failure to me, because what’s the point? I mean, you might as well just go and see these photographs," she argues. "What we tried to do is recreate the visceral experience you have standing in front of one of Burtynsky’s prints. "
Baichwal says she interpreted Burtynsky’s grand photographic style within the parameters of a theater screen and within film’s time-based medium, by keeping the overwhelming scale of his work in mind.
The opening shot is a one-take, 10-minute journey down a Chinese factory’s aisle, past row after row after row of diligent workers, translating Burtynsky’s large format photos (some of which span 10 feet in length as diptychs) by expanding the time of the shot.
In other scenes, Metler and Burtynsky started with the same frame by standing side by side, but then Metler puts on a long lens and zooms in for detail to focus on the human element, Baichwal says.
The other challenge that Baichwal faced was access.
"Ed’s been to China four or five times and he’s never traveled under journalist visa before, so he just goes in and kind of wings it he just has a still camera and people normally just leave him alone," Baichwal says. "When we went, we had to get journalist visas and that became much more complicated because we needed to have a minder traveling with us at all times."
As an example, at Three Gorges Dam, a Chinese dam slated for completion in 2009 which is expected to be at least 50 percent larger than any other dam on the planet and has relocated nearly one million people from 13 towns, Baichwal reports that the crew was involved in constant negotiations to turn on the camera.
"We included [the negotiations] in the film to give people a sense of what it’s like to shoot in China, but also this attempt to control perception," she explains.
At a shipbuilding yard, after one interview with a worker, the crew was kicked out off the site, she says.
Throughout the film, Burtynsky meditates on the meaning he finds in the images he makes and the places he travels. He notes nearly 50 percent of the world’s recycled computers end up in China creating e-waste towns, whose citizens make money by extracting the heavy metals in electronic graveyards. He shares an "epiphany" he experienced in his car in 1997, that oil had a hold on his life that it was the building block of nearly everything he was touching, including the wheel and the glass windshield.
"Oil is the key building block of the last century," he says. "There’s this abundance of black liquid that gives us freedom no matter what we do, we can’t get enough."
Shooting the film has had an intense impact on Baichwal’s personal habits.
"I was deeply changed by my experiences in China in terms of how live," she reflects. "I’ve seen places where people exert a painstaking effort to make the things we consider to be disposable."
Baichwal says that she will consider the film a success only if people understand that the abundance of waste and the excess of modern consumption is seen not China’s problem, but the whole world’s problem.
"The film is about all of us and especially the West we are driving the industrial revolution in China. We’re absolutely implicated heavily," she says. "This film is a metaphor for all industrialized countries. China knows how dirty it’s getting They just think they can do what everyone else has, which is get dirty, make money and clean up later. The fact is, it was already a landscape under pressure because of population, so they just may not have the luxury of making the same mistakes that everybody else has."
Beginning Jan. 18, the Julie Nester Gallery will exhibit a select number of Burtynsky’s large format photographs featured in "Manufactured Landscapes." Julie Nester Gallery is located at 1755 B Bonanza drive in Park City. The gallery’s hours are Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The gallery can be contacted by calling (435) 649-7855 or via e-mail at email@example.com . The gallery’s Web site is http://www.julienestergallery.com.
Manufactured Landscapes will have its first screening Friday, Jan. 19 at the Holiday Village Cinema III.
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