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Watermark – Movie Review

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Watermark – Review by David Turpin

Directed by: Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky

Before dumping a gallon of water over one’s head, for charity or any other purpose, it might be wise to see Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s feature documentary Watermark. A collage of awe-inspiring and often horrifying images structured around the theme of mankind’s exploitation of water, the film takes a largely discursive rather than didactic approach to one of the most pressing ecological concerns of our time. The extraordinary footage, captured in locations ranging from the Texas Panhandle to the frozen expanses of Greenland to the paddy fields of China, captures our world at its most awe-inspiring, and terrifying. A repeated visual device, in which a single detail fills the frame before the shot widens to reveal a vast vista, forcefully evokes a sense of smallness in the face what we are seeing – as well as underscoring our individual powerlessness when faced with the consequences of our actions as a species. While its images of chemical run-off at a tannery Dhaka in India and the construction of the colossal Xiloudo Dam in China are highly disturbing, Watermark at times offers enormous visual pleasure. From the cracked surface of a dried riverbed to the almost impossible smoothness of a column of ice extracted by researchers in Greenland, the film is filled with tactile images of the diversity of our planet.

Contrasting footage of the splendour of nature with equally staggering images of human industry and its exploitation of the planet, Watermark at times recalls Godfrey Reggio’s classic wordless documentaries Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi (sharing with the latter an occasionally troublesome tendency to aestheticise the back-breaking labour of the world’s poor). Unlike Reggio’s films – particularly last year’s trite Visitors – Watermark does deign to allow its human subjects a voice, including brief but affecting interview material that nudges it into slightly more straightforward documentary terrain.

Burtynsky himself was the subject of Baichwal’s previous feature documentary, Manufactured Landscapes (2006), and there is a residual tendency toward hero-worship in Watermark that occasionally threatens to undermine the film. The least compelling sections of Watermark are those dealing directly with Burtynsky himself, as he works on a photo-book entitled Water (published by German luxury book producer Steidl). While Burtynsky’s still images are undeniably breathtaking, and the insight into the mechanics of contemporary publishing is interesting to a point, a “making-of” narrative for a coffee table book can’t really compete with the endangerment of the planet for viewer interest. Indeed, a visit to the stepwells of Rajasthan, which offers a potent opportunity to reveal the extent of mankind’s ingenuity and his hubris, is largely taken up with lingering shots of Burtynsky’s high-end photographic equipment. This strand threatens to halt the film when, in casually self-important voice-over, Burtynsky cites (but does not define) his special understanding of humanity’s relationship to nature, describing his photography as “a lament”. The environmental cost of merchandising this lament is not addressed, although scenes showing the industrial production of Burtynsky’s book suggest a project on deforestation might have been harder to reconcile.

This is a minor quibble, though, when Watermark offers so much that is simply dazzling to behold, even as it is terrifying to contemplate. Throughout, the images resonate more powerfully than the sparsely-used interview material, with Roland Schlimme’s editing creating intriguing parallels and contrasts that span the globe. Instead of preaching to the choir, Watermark takes as read the enormity of the problems it illustrates, and presents us with a succession of images that remind us how small we truly are, even as they reveal the enormous damage we have wrought.

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