Are you familiar with the photography of Edward Burtynsky? He does these huge, incredibly detailed photos of places in which mankind has altered the landscape, like rock quarries or huge development projects and things like that. He claims to take no point of view—he just documents what’s there, not saying whether he thinks this is terrible or great. But the photos would likely make most people think that it’s a little shocking and horrifying how man has harmed the environment.
The movie begins with a long—LONG—tracking shot across this Chinese factory, past rows and rows of workers assembling fans, the very length of which shows you how enormous this facility is and implies the tedious, soul-deadening work these people put in. And of course, we know that these workers are being paid pittance and that all these fans are coming to Europe and the United States.
We then see all the workers, in bright yellow jackets, gather outside on this long street, where they are chastised for lapses in productivity. Burtynsky takes a photo from on high, capturing the rows of identical workers stretching off into the distance and the huge complex they work in.
We then have a section on “E Waste.” E waste are all the computers and gadgets and cell phones that we throw out, which apparently get shipped to China and dumped in these huge fields piled high with the dead technology. Then Chinese spend the whole day combing through the pile and taking out the valuable components or things that can be recycled, turning them in for what we can only imagine is a miniscule amount of money. Burtynsky has some photos of them, and also of the massive mounds of circuits and cell phones that we’ve just thrown out, not really knowing where they end up. He talks about how the people in this impoverished Chinese village pull apart computer monitors, which release toxic chemicals and gases. Burtynsky said he could smell the town from several kilometers away. The toxins leached through the soil and into the water supply, and now the water is no longer drinkable in the region.
After a few brief stops at oddly beautiful and deeply disturbing rock quarries, we head to Bangladesh, where, apparently, oil companies ground their obsolete tankers. When the tide goes out, young Indians go out and dismantle the ships, leading to stunning photographs of absolutely flat landscapes with an enormous half-tanker rising up, a few tiny humans standing nearby. Again, the people tearing these ships apart are not exactly turning into millionaires, and we hear how they are often standing shoulder-deep in oil sludge, and God knows what else, as they work. From there we join the building of the Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest engineering project ever undertaken by man, which will be half-again as long as the longest dam currently in existence. Burtynsky captures amazing photographs of the intricate expanse of the dam’s interior, but also the thirteen cities that are being dismantled for it, all of their residents being “relocated.” We find out it is the families themselves tearing apart their own houses, as they will be paid by the brick.
There is then a short section in Shanghai, a city growing at an explosive pace, as youthful Chinese stream into the city and live in horrid, endless sprawl. The movie pulls a Burtynsky-esque trick in contrasting the cruddy apartments of the common with the massively spacious home—with huge yard—of a prominent real estate agent, i.e. the one who is placing all of those people in the apartments and making her money off them. There is a very good moment in which she says, in her clipped, joyless voice: “This is my favorite bookshelf. Chinese antique style. Red. Red means happy.” She then snaps out the light.
Burtynsky says that he does not claim any bias in his pictures—he is merely representing what he sees—because if he were to take a viewpoint, i.e. “isn’t it terrible?” his viewpoint would become the focus, instead of what he is showing. This is smart, and the movie follows suit. It simply records what he is photographing and gives you a little information about what’s going on there, letting you come to your own conclusions, which are somewhat inescapable. The biggest impression for me was those huge fields of our discarded gadgets and computers. We just take our old computer to the corner and it magically disappears, and I think most of us don’t really know where it goes, except maybe to a dump. The powerful sense I got was of our garbage ending up over there, for some other people to go through and make something of. Kind of the equivalent of raking your leaves and then throwing them on your neighbor’s lawn. Although your leaves are unlikely to poison your neighbor's water supply.
So definitely a fascinating, although deeply, deeply depressing night out at the movies. It is interesting both on the art and political levels, and will make you more aware of the economics and dependencies going on in the world, though without leaving you with much sense except that we—but especially the Chinese—are deeply and truly fucked.
Yes, it’s very good. Some familiarity with Burtynsky’s work going in would enhance your experience greatly.