REVIEW: Watermark

Directed and co-produced by: Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky
Cinematography and co-produced by: Nick de Pencier
Feature documentary w/Burtynsky, Oscar Denis, Sharif Jamil, etc.

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Watermark is a brilliant documentary feature, a cinematic essay that examines its subject—water—in diverse and enlightening ways. Traversing terrains from northern British Columbia’s natural and gorgeous Stikine River watershed to the terrifyingly dry Colorado River Basin to huge imposing dams in China, the film offers a plenitude of sites and situations in which water is the key element. Shot in 10 countries with 20 storylines, Watermark may seem as overwhelming to viewers as is the glorious but scary waterfall that forms the film’s extraordinary first scene. But that’s the nature of its accomplishment: it is only through telling a multiplicity of tales that the film is able to approximate the power and splendour of water—-and show how its glory is being diminished by misbegotten uses created by shortsighted governments and technocrats.

Unlike many other documentaries about water, this creative film goes beyond the valid but reductive tone employed by those who are exclusively concerned about climate change, pollution and the devastating effect of dams on rural populations. Watermark acknowledges these huge concerns, of course; the filmmakers would have been irresponsible if they had ignored those dilemmas. The viewer is offered stories of scientists analyzing the warming of water in the Arctic pole, of native people struggling to find liquid sustenance in dried out regions in Mexico and, of underpaid workers in tanning factories, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The thrust of the film goes into other areas, though—and that’s Watermark’s great strength and originality. We see water as a spiritual force in a massive bathing scene on the Ganges, where hundreds of millions of Hindus come for a ritual cleansing. We see it as a continuing and life-giving supplier for agrarian families in rural southern Asia. And we see it as the inspiration for award-winning photographer Edward Burtynsky to create a new book and gallery show on Water.

Watermark is a collaboration of three artists: Burtynsky making his debut as a film director; Jennifer Baichwal, his lively, philosophical and accomplished co-director and Nick de Pencier, cinematographer and co-producer, who brilliantly interacts and extends the reach of his partners. Edward Burtynksy is famous for his massive photographs, which offer the “big picture” in industrial landscapes and factories—recognizing the beauty of even deformed images while challenging the often-appalling circumstances and scenes he’s documenting. De Pencier replicates Burtynsky’s style, creating gorgeous but problematic images while zooming in or out of environments.

What de Pencier does with his cinematographic apparatus is mirrored by the directorial approach of Baichwal and Burtynsky. 20 story lines in 10 countries are too much—but then, so is water: you can’t contain it in one narrative. Zooming in and out of tales, offering both the big picture and some telling human moments, Watermark is an epic distillation of the beauty and terror of the world’s most important element.