The opening scene of Watermark, a new film from Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal, creates a disorienting effect that leaves the viewer feeling tiny against the pure force of water. The film takes features 20 stories across 10 countries in what director Baichwal, Manufactured Landscapes and Payback, calls a “river-like rhythm.” Inspired by Burtynsky's images, the numerous stories create an overarching narrative around the ways we use, control and pollute water.
After working with Butynsky on Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Baichwal wanted to team up with the photographer again. His work had been the focus of her previous film about industrial manufacturing. When she saw the images he had been working on for a National Geographic essay about water in California, she knew it was the next film.
She felt that the dire tone of other environmental docs failed. Instead Watermark presents a visually compelling story that combines aerial vantages, macros shots and time lapses to present a holistic and artistic perspective. Baichwal said they wanted to capture the full reach of human interaction with water, resulting in a 90 minute film edited from 200 hours of footage.
Watermark moves between the expansive industrial projects around water, like China's Xiluodu Dam, which is six times the size of the Hoover Dam, and the individual human interactions with water, such as the water guard pacing the rice paddies of Yunnan, making sure no one diverts his family's supply. The lone guard’s patrol of trickling waterways contrasts with the Maha Kumbh Mela, a ritual gathering of 30 million people who bathe in a sacred river. Baichwal said the Maha Kumbh Mela served as the "spiritual connection to the water."
“We had broad and respectful ways of filming these stories,” Baichwal said. “Instead of having experts talking about it, we had the people living it.”
Another story focuses on the Dhaka, Bangledesh, leather tanneries that pump chemicals into the local water supply, highlighting the interconnectedness of different water usages. The same water used to process hides is later used for washing people and their clothes. In another scene the parched Colorado River Delta serves as a distinct contrast to the pools of Discovery Bay, a community built right onto the California Delta, built mere feet away from a body of water. California agriculture needs the scarce resource to produce the substantial amounts of produce it supplies the rest of the country, while the abalone farms near China’s Fujian coast are built into the water itself. There are parallels and divergences in how water is used by people around the world, but the recurring theme is that it is necessary for existence.
"It’s interesting living in Canada, which has about twenty percent of world’s fresh water supply. It’s very easy to take advantage of it," Baichwal said. "When you see the devastating effects of water pollution it’s impossible to take it for granted."
She wanted to create a greater awareness of and respect for water, but wanted to approach it different from other environmental documentaries. Instead of inundating viewers with interviews from experts, she chose a more philosophical approach. “We wanted to create a river - we wanted to immerse viewers in it,” Baichwal explained.
“I’m much more interested in understanding the complexity. Acknowledging complexity means not making quick judgements,” she said. “We worked hard on this film. Wanted to open up a space and move people. The power of film is that it can move you. The goal of the film is to do that and create an awareness, or expand our awareness, of this incredible natural force.”
Burtynsky’s studio is featured frequently as he makes edits to his book, Burtynsky-Water, which spans five years of work. The photographs were also part of a traveling exhibition in 2013, making this project a multi-platform experience.
The film, which won Best Documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards and Best Canadian Film from the Toronto Film Critics Association, is playing around the USA in limited release.
-- image reprinted with permission from filmmakers
BIANCA HERNANDEZ is the Acting Web Editor at Sierra. She recently received her MA in Visual Anthropology from the University of Southern California and has written for various publications.