While not exactly your typical "summer movies," I recently viewed "Manufactured Landscapes" and "The Story of Stuff" back to back. Both films are about the same thing.
A mix of action and still photography with almost no dialog, "Landscapes" is a 2007 documentary about the arrival of the industrial revolution in the Third World, especially China. Director Jennifer Baichwal expands upon Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky's large-scale photographs of land transformed by industry. The color and composition of the images are beautiful; the content is not. Opening with a seemingly endless tracking shot through a gigantic factory in China, "Landscapes" goes on to show us the assembly lines staffed by young uniformed Chinese workers putting together electrical devices and, notable to me, household irons.
Thousands of workers line up in front of their factory buildings on an avenue that reminds me of military assemblages in the old USSR. When I saw hundreds of irons hanging above the assembly line, I wondered how many irons could we really need? I've had the same stainless steel iron for the last 30 years. Perhaps that's a clue. The Chinese irons are plastic, not steel; based on the information presented in Annie Leonard's short film "Stuff," they're made to fail.
"Stuff" gives us a human narrator backed by an animated storyboard with icons representing each step in the industrial process: the extraction of natural materials, then manufacturing, distribution, and (indicated with the only color on the screen, a flashing gold arrow) consumption ...and then on to the waste stream. Additional hidden waste and economic inequities are illustrated at every step.
"Stuff" explains that early in the 20th Century an economist pointed out that industrial processes were so productive that they would outstrip demand for goods in no time at all, so artificial demand had to be created in order to generate the huge profits that capitalist industrialists desired. Planned obsolescence was paired with an advertising blitz, to convince us that we "need" a product in order to be an acceptable human being. Worse than the "buy this, buy more" messages is, "buy this new one with the additional gizmo or slightly altered function even though the one you already have does the job pretty well."
This last consumer imperative produces mountains of discarded cell phones and takes me back to "Manufactured Landscapes" which covers the end processes for no longer wanted items. In Bangladesh, large ships are grounded at high tide and dismantled right on the beach, exposing both workers and the ocean to poisons associated with ship breaking. In a Chinese village, the whole community is engaged in dismantling computer components to recover minute amounts of copper and other valuable metals. Doorways of tiny houses open directly to piles of toxic e-wastes.
When I saw "Stuff," it was with a handful of friends. One of its messages was that corporations have inappropriate influence over government so that regulation of the whole natural resources/manufacturing/distribution/consumption/waste process is controlled by corporations to their advantage. My friend Tom said although he agreed with "Stuff's" message, he felt most Americans would be turned off by the corporation bashing. My reaction is that it isn't the corporate form that has led to current problems as much as sheer size. There's little accountability in any organization or community of great size, where authority is diffuse or remote and hidden. This compounded with our human tendency to go along to get along leads to irresponsible and damaging results, concentrated benefit with diffuse injury.
Any film on China is going to leave me thinking about over-population, not just China's but the world's. The thousands of Chinese workers we see in a big factory are mirrored by the thousands of Americans who are the invisible recipients of the irons that speed by on the assembly line. It is only natural that Chinese people would like an improved standard of living - famine is only a generation or two in the recent past. As the Chinese population shifts from countryside to cities, from an agrarian economy to industrial, water and air quality declines significantly. This isn't about aesthetics; this isn't about pretty landscapes or conservation of wildlife habitat. This is about human health, ours as well as Chinese, because this scale of contamination will reach us eventually.
Without preaching at all, merely showing us the industrial processes at both the beginning and end of familiar products, "Manufactured Landscapes" shows us a beautiful but dismal picture of over consumption driven by too many people and too much manufactured needs. It's worth seeing.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who prefers to maintain and continue to use stuff rather than acquire new.