This visually astonishing film starts with a Godardian 8-minute tracking shot of a factory at work. Unfortunately that’s as close as the film gets to politics as photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose work is the focus of the film, takes the naïve liberal position of letting people decide for themselves. The decision they need to make is whether global capitalism is a good thing as Burtynsky’s images show the immense scale of manufacturing in China; as well as the minutiae of checking whether the ‘squirter’ works in a steam iron. If Burtynsky stays neutral the images of dehumanisation and exploitation leave no doubt as to the destruction, to the planet and souls, wrought by our consumer society.
So the film’s message is clear why criticise the photographer whose images are truly stunning? Well his occasional voice over is a limp soundtrack that suggests that we need not worry too much about what we’re seeing. It’s as if all he cares about is the opportunity for a good photograph; we do see him choreographing hundreds of Chinese workers.
The film also mixes in the ‘self-reflexive’ documentary mode that sit uneasily in the film as most of it’s a montage of images and image-making. It feels as if director Baichwal is padding an already short film.
I shouldn’t be so irritated as this is a fine film conveying the idiocy of consumerism in staggering and surreal beauty.