The bulk of the documentary is set in China where he documents the industrial expansion of that country and its effects, largely on the landscape and by extension on the country's people. The film's unforgettable opening is a five minute, unrelenting shot through unending benches for workers in a Chinese factory. It immediately drives home the sense of scale that he documents and only ends with the photos he took at the location as well as interviews with workers and others to explain the factory's organization and the way of life of those who work there.
Burtynsky explains his series in a TED Talk from 2005 where his thoughtfulness shines. My only disappointment is his dancing around whether he is an environmentalist. As an artist, I know he wants to ask questions rather than adopt a specific viewpoint or preferred solution. That is the usual role of artists but the reality of his photos underlines the environmentalist viewpoint, even if most of us are quite happy to reap the benefits of environmental degradation through a prosperous lifestyle, a position he also acknowledges is his own.
Over the years, I have been to a number of Burtynsky's exhibits at various museums and galleries, most recently his Watermark series that is also accompanied by a documentary. The photos are always large and carefully considered from the starting point of seeking out an image to final production. Spontaneity is not the point of his work. For me, the most telling point of his process goes back to the description of his turning point as a landscape photographer when he got lost driving in the United States and happened to find a quarry at hand. Seeing its ugly beauty, he knew that he had to explore that line of imagery or become a calendar landscape photographer.
He continues developing that initial insight and sharing his powerful vision of a world wounded by our activity that he renders beautiful, while also disturbing for what it shows us about what we would prefer not to see about ourselves.