Year in Film: Beauty lies - Page 2

A look beneath the surface splendor of 2007's most haunting documentaries

The viewer, as if the film's friend, can fill in gaps and mentally expand on the subjects' pointed statements.

There are moments in Zoo when harshness or avidness peeks through the mostly even tones of the voices, such as when a local senator declares that animals — like children — cannot consent to sex with men, but this is diffused by quiescent visuals, the absence of a physical presence, and a refusal to linger on or delve further into these objections. Similarly, Manufactured Landscapes skirts a direct and impassioned address of the offense against humans and nature that it depicts and relies more on the awe of imagery and fastidiously selected and placed bits of commentary. Edward Burtynsky, the photographer whose work the film extends and considers, explains that he wants his daunting photographs of dramatically botched landscapes to be left to viewers' interpretation. The role of the artist is to competently capture and present in a way that encourages discourse rather than to project a prefabricated message or force a critique.

In Manufactured Landscapes, Baichwal's vision is consistent with Burtynsky's. Her video footage of devastation such as that associated with the Three Gorges Dam and gargantuan mounds of e-waste, both in China, is accompanied by Burtynsky's narration, which contains a rather discreet lament but foregrounds a more ambiguous combination of fact and feeling. A notable difference between her product and his is that hers includes the process of his, so in her film we are able to see that he choreographs the laborers in his photographs. Toward the beginning, he directs the innumerable yellow-clad Chinese workers on the premises of a huge factory, seemingly creating symmetry to convey the atmosphere of this immense and oppressive world. Also, Baichwal uses the clever device of pulling out of a site that Burtynsky photographs to reveal his picture hanging in an upscale gallery. In this way the viewer is delivered a powerful juxtaposition — a suggestion of the conflicted, perhaps ridiculous, consumption of these ironically beautiful photographs by the privileged people who can only relate to the images through their vague complicity in the dusty and oily oppressions of globalization.

It is mostly the visual style — the exquisiteness of the shots — that renders the reception of these films frustrating in a rewarding way; it is a frustration of sensibility and of fundamental sentiments about human nature. Burtynsky briefly comments on the symbolism of the gigantic ships under construction that he photographs in Bangladesh — ships that are built by teenagers who are up to their necks in oil, working in life-risking conditions, and that are used to deliver the oil he uses for his art and transportation. As in other scenes of the film, he and Baichwal enact a subtly sinister symbolism to nudge viewers toward absorbing the absurdity of development without empathy. One triumph of their work is that they slyly fuse concern for the environment (as in alien landscapes blistered with toxins) with concern for fellow humans (as in foreign factory workers who assemble our consumables). Another gorgeous and telling image is of an endless heap of computer parts of various shapes and sizes. It resembles an art installation of some sort, but as the camera slowly pulls out, a gasp forms in reaction to the heap's vastness, and the viewer learns that the Chinese who rummage for valuable metal are exposing themselves to toxic metals that also make their way into their water.

In Zoo the visual style is more a product of finding a literal representation of the story being recounted and presenting it as a pleasing near-abstraction.

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