Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky have truly outdone themselves artistically, narratively, philosophically, and visually with the stunning documentary Watermark. The director and subject, respectively, of the also excellent Manufactured Landscapes have come together once again to create a thoughtful and almost literally breathtaking look at man’s relationship to the water that encompasses the globe. Not merely showing the exploitation of said natural resources, Baichwal and Burtynsky strike a perfect balance that shows realistic situations free of any sort of didacticism. It’s a call to action and conservation that also underlines things both good and ironic, but more importantly never talks down to the audience out of fear that viewers won’t be able decipher the point.
From the gorgeous opening shots of formidable rushing water looking almost like volcanic eruptions to the construction of the enormous Xiluodu Dam in China where it’s impossible for massive construction equipment not to be dwarfed in scope, there’s a decidedly epic grandeur being played with and subverted by Baichwal, Burtynsky, and producer/cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier (whose 5K digital photography deserves an award of some kind from anyone willing to give him one).
Aside from looking at the power and construction that water necessitates and in many ways helps to create through its very existence, Baichwal and Burtynsky are also looking at the ways water shapes how we live our lives commercially, substantially, and historically. From the formation of the Los Angeles aqueducts to massive aquifers spreading out as far as the eye can see, water has clearly shaped where people live and how goods are processed, but Baichwal and Burtynsky also show the flip side. No aquifer will ever have a full supply of water, as time lapse photography frighteningly shows, and the diversion of rivers often comes at the expense of the indigenous, poor, or self-sufficient having to watch their land turn into arid dust bowls.
Aside from affecting the lives of residents, there are also two intriguing examples of how workers in dangerous, toxic industries along the water are just as unhappy as the environment around them. Workers at a Chinese abalone farm (on massive outcroppings of floating docks that will mirror dried up riverbeds and “quaint” planned communities on natural bays, all of which look like the skeletal remains of a dried up leaf) will demand to be paid while being overworked in an overfished environment. And while the workers at a Bangladesh tannery don’t necessarily complain, I can safely say that I have never been more turned off by a single industry in all my years of watching and reviewing films. I have seen graphic depictions of slaughterhouses before, but something about the reprehensible conditions of a tannery all around that are captured here ensure that I will never buy another piece of leather as long as I live. And they show it all without sugarcoating their point with carefully crafted explanation or stumping. It’s shown simply as is.
Even Burtynsky shows the irony of his own situation in full detail. The film also depicts the publication of his most recent book (which with this film and a gallery exhibit a trilogy for him about our relationship to water) with the famed Steidl publishing house. Before his book is completed the camera cheekily lingers over a shot of discarded and misprinted pages that also amount to a huge pile of waste. The film never answers if these pages will be recycled or even if they can be. They are simply there as a testament to the filmmakers saying they aren’t above making wasteful environmental mistakes either. It’s a key, but deeply humanizing moment.
Even when humans are revelling in the water – like at the overcrowded Huntington Beach for the US Open of Surfing or the mass washing away of sins from visitors flocking to the banks of the Ganges – they aren’t enjoying it or necessarily respecting it in ways they should. Both events are good intentioned and can arguably be seen as necessary releases for the participants, but they’re performed on too large of a scale for them to be healthy for anyone there and even worse on the water. When the least wasteful manipulation of water for calming entertainment value in the film is the synchronized fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, there’s a problem that everyone needs to take a step back and address.
Again, these are all points that the viewer can draw from the film. This isn’t so much a review as it is analysis, I guess, but it’s a film designed to be analyzed. In terms of an actual review, there’s not much more to say outside of it being an exemplary effort all around. It’s a sight to behold and unlike any other film on the subject, destined to make lists of the greatest nature documentaries of all time. It’s also assuredly a big screen experience. It would be hard for the small screen to do this work proper justice.
Watermark directors Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky will participate in Q&As in Toronto following the 7:25pm showing at Varsity Cinemas on Friday, September 27th and the 7:00pm showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, September 28th. They will also be participating in a special conversation at the Bay & Bloor Indigo at 3:00pm on Sunday, September 29th.