"Manufactured Landscapes" opens with one of the most engrossing, unnerving tracking shots in recent cinematic history, a seven-minute vista that perfectly encapsulates the points this unsettlingly beautiful and intentionally disturbing film wants to make.
The shot takes us through, at a slow and stately pace that goes on long enough to become disorienting, a Chinese factory that is apparently the world's largest manufacturer of irons. On and on and on the camera moves through this space of unimaginable size and depth, and just when you think it can't go on any longer, it does.
For several years now, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has been documenting places like this factory, locations that create radically new landscapes that are transforming the face of the planet.
Concerned that "when we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves," Burtynsky views his provocative photographs not so much as a call to arms as an invitation to awareness, intended, as was the recent food-based documentary "Our Daily Bread," to alert us to what we are doing in our pursuit of progress and consumer goods.
Canadian documentarian Jennifer Baichwal is nominally doing no more than accompanying Burtynsky on several of his frequent trips to China, where the size of the country and the rush to industrialize and catch up to the First World has led to some remarkable situations and photographs.
But the filmmaker, working with exceptional cinematographer and creative consultant Peter Mettler, has not only an eye similar to the photographer's but also concerns that both run parallel to his and take things a step further.
For Baichwal is interested in more than these quite staggering landscapes. She looks at the people who have to live and work inside them, making a life for themselves in the midst of industrial dehumanization.
Some of the most affecting scenes in the film show individuals patiently doing their small and often uninvolving tasks, like putting together some kind of industrial circuit breaker so endlessly it must make China the carpal tunnel capital syndrome of the world.
Seeing the size and scale of what is happening in China, to watch, for instance, some woefully overmatched folk picking through monstrous piles of industrial waste in some sort of abortive recycling effort, is truly staggering.
"Staggering" is also the word for the sequences involving China's controversial Three Gorges dam, not only the largest dam in the world but 50% larger than the one that is in second place. To construct the dam, China did more than relocate close to 1 million people, it then also paid them to painstakingly dismantle their homes, brick by brick, to create a deeper channel for shipping.
It all sounds unimaginable, but as this powerful documentary demonstrates, it is happening right now and is reshaping the world we live in.