Review: ‘Walking on Water’

Artist Christo returns

4 mins read

Walking on Water
(Italy/USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Andrey Paounov
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American Premiere)

Get a new peak behind the curtain of a genius’s artistic process in Walking on Water. This film by Bulgarian director Andrey Paounov offers an engrossing glimpse into the craft of Christo, the renowned installation artist who transforms environments into experiential artwork. Christo’s art is no stranger to documentary having been captured in a quintet of documentaries by the Maysles Brothers, most notably in Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974) and Umbrellas (1994). That’s a high bar for any filmmaker to meet, especially when documenting the same subject undergoing a similar endeavour, yet Paounov more than meets the challenge.

Christo’s project in Walking on Water inevitably evokes comparison to the elaborate curtain he draped across the Denver’s Rifle Valley as depicted in one of the Maysles’ doc. This time, instead of spanning tonnes of orange fabric hundreds of miles above ground, Christo drapes the colourful material clean across the waters of Italy’s Lake Iseo. It’s an installation of Biblical proportions. Christo aims to allow art enthusiasts to traverse the body of water without wetting a toe.

Paounov observes Christo undertake this massive project, which was conceived decades earlier with his partner Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2016. The ambitious artwork involves interlocking buoyant piers that come together like LEGO before Christo and his team cover them with eye-popping orange sheets. The project is like an elaborate network of docks that bridge communities on either side of the lake while offering waterfront cafés and scenic views for the public.

Christo once again proves to be a colourful and larger than life character. Now 80, he’s more cantankerous and scrappy than ever. His nephew, Vladimir, serves as his head of operations and the two trade some humorous wars of words when they disagree on the best course to realize the project. A debate over sturdy chains versus flimsy chains, for example, highlights Christo’s droll screen presence and crotchety ways while illustrating the collaborative process of the work for which he often alone receives credit. Similarly, Paounov’s camera captures the sheer scale of the effort that goes into executing this unique project. It’s a thrill to watch so many hands come together in the service of great art.

Walking on Water adds to the enigmatic appeal of Christo by evoking many of the same tensions observed by the Maysles and other filmmakers who tell his stories. His work is an acquired taste, seen as frivolous or pointless to some, while breathtaking and invaluable to others. Scenes of town meetings are given weight equal to exchanges with art dealers and collectors. The work is as valuable socially as it is commercially. Anything that draws people together to engage with their natural environment and view their surroundings with new appreciation is a priceless work of art. It’s in this regard that Walking on Water shows Christo to be a master: the best art creates forums for community and engagement. Doc fans and festivals everywhere should be rolling out the orange carpet for this film.

Walking on Water screens:
-Sat, Sept. 8 at TIFF Lightbox at 9:15 PM
-Sun, Sept. 8 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 9:45 PM
-Sun, Sept. 16 at Jackman Hall at 6:15 PM

Visit the POV TIFF Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!


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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