Now in its 12th year, the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in London has grown into quite a notable event in the diary of Londoners. What’s brilliant about the festival is its ability to draw in such a wide range of people, helped in part by its media partnership with Time Out. And the films vary from animation (this year’s headlining film, Persepolis) and drama to documentary. There are far too many to list here so I will focus on one particular documentary, and also the one most suitable for this publication, about the photography of Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes.
The film begins with the slow and careful panning through rows of green desks and workstations with yellow-uniformed workers hunched over or standing at their assembly lines. It slowly continues like this for the first six minutes – endless rows of thousands of workers, eerily quiet apart from the melodic, ambient noise of humming and puffing machines. This is the Chinese factory which is the setting for a series of photographs from Burtynsky’s recent publication, China.
Most readers will have been familiar with Burtynsky’s work – his large format images, almost, dare I say it, Gursky-esque, depicting stunning landscapes, unreal in scale, of former mines and quarries, the Three Gorges Dam and industry across the People’s Republic. There’s also a striking 20-minute sequence, set in Bangladesh, focusing on the shipbreakers of Chittagong.
Most people will also be aware of the economic surge gushing throughout China: everything is made in China, as we know. But to actually see this process in moving image is quite arresting, as agile hands rapidly assemble unrecognisable plastic pieces which will be handed on to form a tiny part of a toy or appliance. The filming of the workers and ex-residents driven out by the Three Gorges dam is approached in the same manner – be it meticulously working on the structure of the dam or painstakingly having to tear down your own city, brick by brick, before it becomes completely flooded to make way for a new system of transporting all the goods produced here.
The film-makers are not overtly campaigning but have used Burtynsky’s work to show what is happening. He too is not here to advocate or criticise nor to celebrate or glorify, just to document. The film becomes a stunning portrayal of not only Burtynsky’s images but the landscape of China and Bangladesh just as Burtynsky’s camera has captured them, but with a medium that makes the circumstances seem all too real, not as distant as Burtynsky’s vantage point.
Manufactured Landscapes is one of 25 films on at this year’s festival.