Jennifer Baichwal's 2002 documentary The True Meaning Of Pictures considered the work of Shelby Lee Adams, a high-art photographer known for staging arguably exploitative tableaux of Appalachian poverty. For Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal turns her attention to another photographer, Edward Burtynsky, whose work is nowhere near as exploitative as what it depicts. Burtynsky prefers to shoot massive construction sites, factory operations, and industrial litter. He insists that he isn't trying to glorify the scars that industrialization leaves on the planet, or trying to condemn it. He just wants to show it "how it is."
But Baichwal doesn't seem to trust Burtynsky. Manufactured Landscapes makes a game stab at recreating the feeling of staring at one of Burtynsky's eerily beautiful pictures, by presenting long static takes and snail-paced tracking shots, interspersed with stills of the work in question. And frankly, the subject matter is better suited to images alone, where the mysterious abstraction can stand as its own statement. When put into a broader social context—specifically, when Baichwal explores the origins and consequences of all the waste Burtynsky finds—the movie becomes yet another "isn't it a pity" doc, where the damnable inequity of globalization provides an occasion for muted, impotent rage.
There have been good documentaries made in that mold, but they all explored the subject in more depth. Baichwal merely nibbles, before returning to Burtynsky's startling photographs—only now with her own interpretation more apparent. The film works best when Baichwal watches Chinese factory workers assemble circuit breakers by hand at an impossible pace, or when she explores the contrasts between a Shanghai slum and a nearby mansion, meditating silently on how societies apportion living space. But even there, Manufactured Landscapes becomes a Baichwalian version of Burtynsky, and not a movie about Burtynsky himself. What's left off the table is a meaningful examination of environmental artists' responsibility to the environment they depict, and the question of whether all truly great art leaves behind a little toxic waste of its own.