Documentaries on China and ‘Gotham’
newly released on Blu-ray
REVIEWS by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm
Got a Blu-ray system and a TV screen that makes good use of high definition? Then, make sure these two documentaries are in your Christmas stocking as a knock-your-eyes-out glimpse of our world’s ominous twists and turns these days.
MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (2006) takes us to China for exactly what the title describes: A series of scenes set in vast, man-made landscapes the Chinese have created in their nation’s desire to attain status as the world’s greatest power. A few years ago, when Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary was first released in the DVD format for home viewing, ReadTheSpirit recommended this film as a rare window into Chinese life and culture.
As a documentarian, Baichwal follows the large-format photographer Edward Burtynsky, who spent a couple of years capturing his own images in China. In one part of his photographic project, Burtynsky traveled to the dangerous regions where Chinese families break down the world’s discarded computers. They do this partly by incinerating the debris to harvest rare metals. In this film, he explains, “When you come to a town that’s doing a burning of the boards, you can smell it a good 5-to-10 kilometers before you get there.”
As a journalist for American newspapers, I was posted to developing regions of Asia for short periods on several occasions. I remember standing slack-jawed myself at the sight of what is called “ship breaking” in Bangladesh—another subject of Burtynsky’s photography. “Ship breaking” involves near-naked men wearing little more than loin cloths swarming over ocean-going ships with hand tools, literally breaking up the old ships into component parts that can be used in rebuilding other ships. One’s mind boggles at the danger and the obvious physical cost to these poor men grappling with mountains of steel in their bare skin—while at the same time seeing a mountain-sized ocean liner reduced to bits and pieces by the effort. There is a similar scene in this Chinese documentary of a hulking ship half stripped.
In our 2008 review of the DVD, I wrote in part: Baichwal and Burtynsky decline to preach at us. Even more provocatively, they show us a strange beauty within their most powerful images from China—the interiors of vast factories, ship-deconstruction yards that look like scenes from science-fiction films and even the world-record-setting Three Gorges Dam project. In the end, they almost seduce us into seeing the strange attractiveness, both in the visual imagery and in the values that lead Chinese decision-makers to pursue these projects. And, darn it all, if that doesn’t leave us in a spiritual dilemma about what choices we should make as global citizens. That’s perfect for small-group discussion. You won’t have any trouble at all sparking spirited conversation about this film.
BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK (2010) may seem like a strange dual recommendation, except that the new Blu-ray rendering of the film is equally thought-provoking. The film takes us on a wild ride through New York with famous, eccentric, brilliant “fashion” photographer Bill Cunningham. If you’re questioning my objectivity as a reviewer of these Zeitgeist documentaries, for the Bill Cunningham film, let’s turn to the opinions of other reviewers.
The New York Times’s Carina Chocano wrote in part: Bill Cunningham seeks out and captures humanity amid the maelstrom of life, looking for what Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in the film as “ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways.” In these fleeting and otherwise unseen or unremarked moments, Mr. Cunningham finds something creative, life affirming and free—and preserves it forever.
Variety’s Mark Holcomb, invoking Eastern spirituality, wrote: Director Richard Press … has crafted a near-Buddhist reflection on what it takes to fully engage Gotham, as well as an astute snapshot of its evermore avaricious soul: Cunningham’s cheerful asceticism is so out of step with what we currently expect and don’t expect from our city that tagging along with him is a bracing reminder of what’s been lost to the bottom line.
Two eye-popping films about photographers teaching us to see our world in new ways—now released in the dazzling high definition of Blu-ray. Go on. Click on the Blu-ray covers and order these gems.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.