The spectacle of workers reduced to specks, overwhelmed figures in an artificial landscape, has functioned as the visual centerpiece of...

The spectacle of workers reduced to specks, overwhelmed figures in an artificial landscape, has functioned as the visual centerpiece of such classic fiction films as King Vidor’s “The Crowd” and Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.”

Jennifer Baichwal’s stimulating Canadian documentary, “Manufactured Landscapes,” opens with a similar extended moment: a 10-minute-long tracking shot of workers, rows and rows and rows of them, putting in their hours at a Chinese factory. It’s an epic touch and reason enough to see this movie in a theater with a large screen.

What the workers are doing is less important than the sight of so many of them twisting plastic and metal as they assemble computers and other electronic devices (one worn-out worker is shown sleeping at his station). Eventually, 50 percent of the world’s computer parts return to China, where this “e-waste” is methodically recycled into the country’s already toxic air and water.

And China isn’t the only culprit. In the most chilling sequence, eager Bangladesh teenagers use their bare hands to salvage oil from a tanker. Youth seems entirely expendable here.

Reminiscent of Al Gore’s slide-and-lecture show, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Baichwal’s film takes a more abstract approach to the pollution of Mother Earth. It was inspired by photographer Edward Burtynsky, who tries not to indicate any political leanings in descriptions of his work.

“It’s another landscape, a different landscape,” he says while describing his surprisingly elegant photos of mines, quarries, factories, junkyards and other “industrial incursions” he found in China, Canada and elsewhere.

“I’m not trying to condemn or damn it,” he says. “It is what it is.” At the same time, he acknowledges a “reverence for nature” and a fear that “if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”

As aerial shots take in the twists and curves of freeways, Burtynsky talks about having an “oil epiphany,” suddenly realizing that not only does his car require oil and gas, but that many parts of it, including the steering wheel, owe their existence to oil. He calls it “the building block of the last century.”

He seems happiest lining up a Chinese cast of thousands, choreographing their movements and taking a detailed picture. Baichwal and her cinematographer, Peter Mettler, capture the moment, using their 16mm camera to shoot a movie of an artist taking a still photo. Almost subliminally, the picture becomes part of a museum exhibit of his work.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com