'Watermark': Raise a Glass to Water

(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Jennifer Baichwal & Edward Burtynsky, Writ. Jennifer Baichwal
Colorado River Delta #2, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico 2011.
©Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto /
Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowitz, New York

The scientists say that the amount of water on Earth measures something in the league of 326,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons. That sounds like a lot. Figures like that encourage Homer Simpson-like rationalizations of “Water, water everywhere, let’s all have a drink.” With so much water to go around, humans can consume as they please, right?

An artist might frame this figure a little differently. In fact, renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky has devoted an entire three-part project to the enormous significance of the way humans conceptualize water. The feature-length documentary Watermark, which opens at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema October 11, marks the third part of Burtynsky’s Water project. Watermark follows and complements the book Burtynsky: Water and a major photographic exhibition that was on display in town until last month. Watermark reunites Burtynsky with Manufactured Landscapes director Jennifer Baichwal for another visually breathtaking essay about the relationship between humans and the planet.

The film is a marvellous culmination of Burtynsky’s work. This collaboration with Baichwal shows the stirring photography of Burtynsky’s Water project and it gives audiences a rare insight into the philosophy behind such art as Watermark takes Burtynsky to various corners of the globe that house the bodies of water within his viewfinder. Watermark is a global immersion into man’s connection to water, as the film offers twenty stories in ten countries. Like Baichwal’s Payback from last year, Watermark is a globetrotting tapestry of universal themes and causes.

Among the snapshots of Watermark are a visit to the Xilodu dam in China, which is the world’s largest. The structure is an immense presence—how cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier captures it all in one shot is a wonder as great as the dam itself—and Watermark’s visit to the site conveys the magnitude to which human activity and manmade structures are redefining and reshaping the ways water is consumed and cycled. The effects of rerouting and containing water are juxtaposed across the globe in the images of the hauntingly sun-scorched bed of the Colorado River. What was once a flowing body of water is now a barren desert thanks to overconsumption. Watermark notes that over seventy percent of water use is devoted to agriculture, and the contrast between the dead wasteland in Colorado and the beautiful green acres rolling elsewhere in Watermark’s aerial views is striking. Watermark offers powerful and persuasive visual proof of the man-made changes to Earth’s ecosystems akin to last year’s eco doc Chasing Ice.

Water is a source of life in each story, though, and the drought in one of Baichwal and Burtynsky’s pictures underscores how culture and tradition could soon be thirsty if humans keep slaking themselves at the rate they are. A trip to the Ganges, for example, captures an annual pilgrimage in which thirty million people congregate and have an annual bath. Water thus enjoys a longstanding spiritual element within the Earth, which Baichwal and Burtynsky match with images of step wells that were built with a tangibly profound understanding of water as a cycle for life.

Watermark does for water what Gravity does for air as the images, shot in stunning 5k ultra high-definition video, show an element of life and character. Whether the water that flows through the frame is coloured blue by the reflection of the sky or by the indigo dye of a factory, Watermark shows each molecule of water as an elemental life source with which humans have a dynamic and precarious relationship. What looks like a roaring feat of nature in one setting reeks of a wasteful excess in another.

The compelling images in Watermark let viewers grasp for themselves the radical ebbs in our control over water. Few words appear in the film aside from accounts of the people who interact with the bodies, or lack thereof, in each scene, while Burtynsky occasionally offers his perspective on his motivation for the Water project by enlightening viewers on the philosophy behind some of the work they see in the film. Watermark mostly lets the powerful images speak for themselves because few words are needed.

The radiant cinematography by de Pencier offers an epic sense of the scale of water as a force of nature and the equal force with which humans are hitting back. (de Pencier also served as a cinematographer on this year’s other visual doc feast The Ghosts in Our Machine.) Watermark, for all its reach and scope, ends with a tranquil trip down the river in what looks to be the Rocky Mountains. It’s a beautiful, majestic view of the landscape that defines the Canadian wilderness. The scene becomes all the more evocative when one grasps that it’s a sight to be lost.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Watermark opens in Ottawa at the ByTowne Cinema on Friday, October 11
***Note: Edward Burtynsky will be at the ByTowne’s screening on October 14th at 4:25pm for a Q&A***