(Photo: Nickel Tailings #34, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, © Edward Burtynsky)

One of the strongest and most disturbing docs at SIFF this year opens today at


An Inconvenient Truth, Part II

Global warming, meet global ravaging.


(Photo: Nickel Tailings #34, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, © Edward Burtynsky)

One of the strongest and most disturbing docs at SIFF this year opens today at the Varsity, Manufactured Landscapes, a profile of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and his work. He specializes in showing the huge, eerie remnants of extraction industries and heavy manufacturing, our giant handprints upon the planet, as it were. He’s not so long-winded as Al Gore, nor does he need to be, since his images essentially do the talking for him. For this reason, it was interesting to hear the comments of director Jennifer Baichwal when she visited SIFF in May, when we sat down to talk about the film.

About half the documentary was shot in China, now industrializing faster and on a larger scale than any nation in history. Baichwal followed Burtynsky there because, he told her, “‘I wanted to find the place where my computer went to after I threw it away.’ He wanted to trace it back there. All of these things we use and wear are made back there.”

What they found, while the photographer was preparing images for his book Burtynsky: China (Steidl, $85), was both old and new—our cast-off computers in giant, toxic heaps, and their replacements rolling fresh off the assembly line. “We are directly implicated in this industrial revolution,” says Baichwal.

Yet Burtynsky’s images are only critique by implication; there’s a kind of majesty, a gorgeous grandeur, to the large-format renderings of strip mines, slag heaps, and uniformed factory workers. “From the first time I saw them,” says Baichwal, “I was amazed by their capacity to change environmental consciousness in a non-didactic way. They’re very accessible, and they’re very seductive—aesthetically. But then there’s the double-take that you’re looking at garbage, or e-waste, or some scarred, horrible landscape.” This is where, for Baichwal, “This complex dialogue starts about your own impact on the planet.”

In China, she recalls, “The factory we were in makes 20 million irons a year. The Three Gorges dam is 50 percent bigger than any other dam in the world. Scale is everything. And yet this rapid industrialization is taking such a toll. There are no environmental requirements or regulations, which is why everyone’s going over there to set up shop.” Outsourcing, in other words.

Is Burtynsky seeking out on these trips precisely what tourists avoid? “Exactly, which is also what the photographs do. They let you witness the places you’re responsible for, but never normally see. We were in the third largest aluminum recycling yard in the world,” where workers hand-sort our waste. “It was like a Sisyphean task.”

And yet, interestingly, when not reframing Burtynsky’s compositions, or showing how he composed them, Baichwal’s own camera often seeks out the individual worker, the Sisyphus rather than the hill and boulder. This was by intention, she explains: “It was really important to me to go that close.”

She describes the effect of studying one of Burtynsky’s photos in a gallery, then realizing “What you thought was a black spot is actually a person.” There’s the work, the waste, and the individual worker. “That was the goal to me,” Baichwal concludes, to show “the monumental effort that goes into even the things we consider to be disposable.”

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