Force of Nature: ‘Aquarela’ is Awesome

Visually stunning film captures water with all its might

6 mins read

(UK/Germany/Denmark/Russia, 94 min.)
Dir. Victor Kossakovsky

Numerous journalists, advocates, scientists, and environmentalists speculate that water scarcity will be the cause for World War III. However, Aquarela makes a compelling case that water will wage the next war against humans. Water can attack with greater force than bullets, it can cause greater damage than bombs, and its ability to fight isn’t limited by resources or soldiers. Director Victor Kossakovsky raises a glass to the imposing force that is water in Aquarela and delivers an intimidating visual essay about the limits of human activity when faced with the sheer force of nature. This visually stunning documentary captures the power of water in all its staggering violence and beauty.

The near-wordless odyssey of Aquarela is an intimidating and visually awesome cinematic achievement. Aquarela is a close relative to the Jennifer Baichwal, Nick de Pencier, and Ed Burtynsky trilogy of Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Watermark (2013), and Anthropocene (2018) with its captivating portrait of H20 falling somewhere between the latter docs. Striking cinematography, shot in a rare 96-frames per second frame rate, uses the aesthetic power of water to provoke, inspire, frighten, and motivate a viewer. The snazzy high frame rate exhibition, which this review considers, lets audiences experience the full force of chillingly dark waves that crash violently in the Atlantic Ocean and rip through Miami during the chaos of Hurricane Irma.

Aquarela features several chapters that take audiences to various bodies of water around the globe. These sequences, which are not clearly delineated by chapter marks or title cards indicating their locations, force audiences to feel their powerlessness against this shape-shifting element that comprises most of the Earth’s surface. On Russia’s Lake Baikal, Kossakovsky captures the efforts of a rescue crew as it salvages cars from the waters of a frozen lake. By simply observing the crew’s efforts, and the misfortunes of several travellers who happen to drive through the scene, Aquarela conveys how this frozen waterway offers a novel shortcut for drivers—but is catching them by surprise by thawing much, much earlier than usual. Cars plunge through the ice as the rescue efforts become a never-ending process and while the sight of a car disappearing in the background might sound humorous, Kossakovsky lets audiences witness life and death in the same frame as some passengers are less fortunate than others. The intense and immediate footage from the scene sees people slip through the ice as it cracks around them, becoming victims of water’s unruly response to a crisis years in the making.

Other sequences offer different portraits of climate change. Water rolls through a village in Greenland, circling the houses as it flows downhill and threatening their safety. A massive iceberg calves violently as further proof of rising water temperatures. While the views from the ’berg are outstanding, they’re not quite the exhilarating extravaganza that eco doc fans might have encountered in Netflix’s somewhat showier Our Planet, but it’s also a relief to see climate change in action without having to endure David Attenborough’s intolerably bland narration full of basic facts and useless oversimplifications. There’s no need for words when the evidence of climate change is so visually compelling.

The most striking and effective sequence happens in the aforementioned ride through the Atlantic Ocean. Kossakovsky scores some incredible footage of the ocean’s violent tussle with a small boat helmed by a skeleton crew. The high frame rate cinematography proves especially useful in this sequence as Kossakovsky’s team captures the magnitude of the waves as they crash and roll, giving viewers enough detail to see every ripple on the water’s textured surface that they shiver in their seats. It looks bone-chillingly cold.

Aquarela has a remarkable ability to convey emotions simply by presenting shots of water and playing with an intricately layered soundtrack that features everything from rock n roll to a cacophony of downtown traffic as human activity fuels water’s violent streak. There is death and there is danger in Aquarela; there is disorder and there is devastation, but there’s ultimately hope as Kossakovsky offers an optimistic image at the end of the violent flood: a rainbow.

Aquarela opens August 23 in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and in Vancouver at Vancity Theatre.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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