Review: Watermark

December 31, 2013 — Leave a comment

Watermark Film1

Civilization emerged along the banks of waterways that twist and snake through the continents, the flow of H2O providing the spark of life needed for humans to grow and flourish. For a significant slice of our species existence, the relationship with water was one-sided–we were content to explore the tributaries that stretched unknown distances, eventually using water to our advantage through technological advances in transportation, but still subject to its ebb, flow and unpredictable nature. Only recently did the nature of that relationship change, humans redirecting and altering what would normally be determined through natural processes.

Watermark, a documentary from Edward Burtynsky (director), Jennifer Baichwal (director), and Nicholas de Pencier (cinematographer) explores this change and quietly highlights the results when the scales tip too far in one direction. A sequel of sorts to Burtynsky and Baichwal’s previous film, Manufactured Landscapes, it continues their investigation into the ways we consciously and unconsciously shape the world.

It is impossible to enter a film like this without thinking about Discovery’s excellent Planet Earth series, but Watermark is closer stylistically to Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth epics (Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Hobbit Trilogy) combined with a Gary Hustwit documentary. Interviews are interspersed with sweeping shots of aquifers, dams and river beds, the camera hovering, twirling and gliding over areas where water (or the lack thereof) has curated a landscape equal parts power, serenity and melancholy. But wizards, hobbits and Howard Shore–not to mention the backdrop of New Zealand we have come to associate with raw natural beauty on the big screen–are decidedly absent in Watermark. That cinematic substitute for Tolkien’s Middle Earth would have been too obvious a choice for the film. Instead Burtynsk and Baichwal treat viewers to the long strum of an electric guitar–providing a menacing undertone to many of the scenes–and varied landscapes, each location fitting into the larger narrative of the relationship between man and nature. The studio in Toronto where Burtynsky assembles many of the film’s images into a book gives way to rice paddies so brilliantly captured by cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier in the shimmering evening light, they look like painted paper cutouts. Water travels through the paddies like veins, a moment where man and nature coexist in harmony. This contrasts sharply with other locales like the Colorado River Delta, where a woman wanders aimlessly around a once flourishing childhood home in Mexico, now dry and barren due to heavy water use and diversion by the communities on the US side of the border.

One of the most spectacular subjects under the lens is the Xiluodu Dam on the Jinsha River in China. The film opens with water being released from the dam, muddy claws reaching out from an off-screen abyss. Although the bird’s-eye view is a favorite of the filmmakers and works well to provide the full scope of the effect water has on a landscape, scenes like those set around Xiluodu are full of movement and intensity and imbues the film with kineticism. The construction of the dam–six times the size of the Hoover Dam and shown in piecemeal over the course of the film–speaks volumes of both human ingenuity and the lengths humans go to control nature.

The strength of Watermark is that it relies almost solely on its images to convey it message and shows consequences–the winners and losers–behind our actions. There are no politicians, pundits or media experts spouting nonsense. The intricacy of design and expert choreography found in the renown Las Vegas-based Bellagio Fountains may delight thousands, but there is a cost to piping water into a setting so unnatural. More a mediation and series of juxtapositions than a cohesive narrative, Watermark is a reminder of the majesty and beauty of this life-giving substance and of the carelessness we so often practice with the building blocks of our very existence.

{Canada, 2013, 90 minutes}

Note: eOne picked up US distribution rights to the film–be sure to catch it in a theater if possible when it is released in 2014. The silver screen is the only format that does justice to the stunning images captured by the filmmakers.

Above Photo: Colorado River Delta #2, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico 2011. ©Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowitz, New York (obtained from Mongrel Media Press Kit)

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