Using the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky to explore the impact of China's rapid economic development on its environment, Jennifer Baichwal's important, disquieting documentary offers the strongest reminder since BORN INTO BROTHELS that art can serve a crucial, consciousness raising purpose.
Burtynsky is renowned for his large, often beautiful photographs of some very ugly subjects: "manufactured landscapes," natural terrain that has been scarred, bruised, torn open or otherwise modified by the incursion of human industry. Blasted quarries, clear-cut forests, and open-pit coal mines have all figured in his photographs, and he's been able to find a certain beauty in the patterns and color fields formed by earth's scarification: the whorls of the strip mines; the crystalline, vertical cuts of the rock quarries; the richly hued mining residues known as "tailings" that stain the countryside. For the past several years, Baichwal has followed Burtynsky to China, where a convulsive, post-Tiananmen economic boom steadily alteredg the landscape, transforming cities, wiping out centuries-old villages and leaving an indelible mark on the countryside. The film opens with a long, artful tracking shot through a vast factory in one of China's new Special Economic Zones, where manufacturing plants and residential dormitories form virtual villages for poor provincials. Baichwal's camera then moves outside, where Burtynsky is attempting to capture the morning marshaling of workers about to begin work on the assembly lines inside. But they're just one part of global production cycle. Raw materials such as iron, aluminum and wood are imported into the SEZs, assembled into appliances for export to the West, then return as recyclable garbage. Baichwal follows Burtynsky to the small villages where poor peasants rummage through colorful mounds of old electric irons, telephones and "e-waste," gleaning recyclable materials from computer motherboards, keyboards and monitors whose toxic contents eventually seep into the ground and poison the water. Baichwal's provocative juxtaposition of assemblage and decay reaches epic proportions when Burtynsky visits the Port of Tianjin shipyard where workers construct the massive vessels that will carry all the shiny new products to western consumers in enormous cargo containers that also sometimes carry stowaways. Then, in the film's most disturbing sequence, Burtynsky photographs the shipbreakers of Bangladesh who pick away at the rusting hulls of abandoned iron leviathans for scrap, and scrape out the highly toxic dregs of the oil they once carried.
Burtynsky's keen sense of color, pattern and composition are obvious from his work, but equally acute are his thoughts on how he, as an artist as well as an inhabitant of the planet, fits into the larger scheme of things. Baichwal intercuts Burtynsky's travels across Asia with footage of a lecture in which he directly addresses his concerns about our ever-shrinking world, and delivers the message many need to hear before they're willing to respond: In harming the earth on which we all live, we're only ultimately harming ourselves.
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