(2006) dir. Jennifer Baichwal
Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky rises above the standard for the form, instilling her camera and approach to adhere to yet supplement Burtynsky’s own aesthetics, social criticism (overt or covert), and the landscapes and peoples that his work addresses. Not that Thomas Riedelsheimer’ documentary about the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides (2001), is really any major comparison point, it’s probably the only other documentary that I’ve seen in recent years that follows an artist through the production of their work and while allowing them to discourse on their approach and perspectives.
Baichwal takes most of Burtynsky’s voiceover comments from a lecture that he gave, which we are shown a few snippets of, but also lets the images and moments speak for themselves, which is much how Burtynsky approaches his photography.
Inspired originally as a photographer of natural landscapes, Burtynsky became more and more interested in the landscapes that have been altered by humans, especially the grander and grander in scale. Scale is one of the stunning aspects of his work as the images themselves are large, but the scope of the content of a single image often demonstrates the immensity of the landscapes or images that he shoots. These landscapes include massive factories, strip-mined hills, massive piles of recycling and construction, and a significant shot of an enormous, sprawling coal mine output. His work addresses globalization, focused intently on China, who as he describes, strive to become the world’s manufacturer and recycler of resources. He shoots the drastic change in centralizing China’s workforce and the dramatic landscape changes brought about by the Three Gorges Dam.
It’s amazingly provocative while lacking hardcore polemics. Baichwal, who shares an appreciation for Burtynsky’s style and aesthetics, adds layers upon his work with her roving camera, starting with a drawn-out tracking shot of a sprawling manufacturing plant, row by endless row of workstations and curious workers. She draws together the production and the recycling of the raw materials from the small to the vast, microchips to the enormous cargo vessels that ship these things across the planet. The film moves with a logical progression through the breadth of Burtynsky’s subject matters, into the stunning enormity of the Three Gorges Dam project.
This is an excellent, well-produced documentary, both appealing regarding Burtynsky’s work, which also achieves great beauty in it’s arrangement and artistry, but also it’s depth of analysis of the world, its people, its vastness, the pure vastness of the impact of the human footprint, almost the finiteness of an individual. This is one of the better documentaries that I have seen recently. I’d encourage all to check it out.