“We are water.”
If there was a concise way to summarize Watermark, this quote from Oscar Dennis comes pretty close. Words do a poor job of describing a film of such overwhelming visual beauty, but the Tahltan linguist captured the simple and yet loudest message of the film.
Watermark is the second cinematic collaboration between Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky. In its ninety-minute run, Watermark takes the viewers on an aquatic journey from the Colorado River Delta, to a dam in China, and back home – floating down Stikine River in British Columbia.
Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal says that the twenty stories told through images in Watermark make up only a fraction of the original work. “We started with 200 different ideas; then whittled down to 50, then 30, then 20 made it into the final film,” Baichwal told The Link in a phone interview. “The whole process of the film took three years: a year of researching, a year of shooting, and a year of editing.”
At the first glance, Watermark’s main narrative seems to focus on the process of publishing Burtynsky’s latest book, “Burtynsky-Water;” each story featured in the film is summed up with a few of Burtynsky’s still prints. Burtynsky is also the only recurring character – he is seen as the observer and the visual chronicler of water scenes around the world.
However, it soon becomes evident that the real protagonist of the film is water. Whether it is an abundance or a terrifying lack of it, the stories told in Watermark all focus on the complicated relationship between human beings and the most precious resource on planet Earth. The film gives a glimpse into many roles that water plays in the lives of human beings: the audience witnesses a religious pilgrimage to the Dakshin Ganga River; an Icelandic expedition to research the deepest layers of ice for clues to climate change; and people bathing in the Buriganga River just a few miles downstream from a leather tannery.
While the juxtaposition of images in the film is bound to cause strong reaction among the viewers, Baichwal says that neither she nor Burtysnky aimed to make a didactic film. “I think there is something way too linear about those films that is inherently too reductive,” Baichwal explains. “Reality is very complex; and to try to make something reductive, tidy for the sake of narrative doesn’t work.”
Indeed, the cinematic experience of Watermark matches its multifaceted subject matter. The aesthetic beauty of images captured by Burtynsky’s lens and startling revelations guided by Baichwal’s slow camera zooms leave the viewer overwhelmed. This does not, however, take away from the clarity of the narrative.
Baichwal explains that the goal was to make the film an experience instead of an argument:
“We have always been much more interested in creating a space—an experiential space—to think about something in a different way that may be transformative, or may create some sort of a shift in consciousness.”
As a result, the images in the film speak for themselves. The documentary reinforces a well-known fact that water makes life on Earth possible. In one of the scenes, Icelandic researchers discuss the essential role of water in processes like cell division. But another carefully chosen quote in the film expresses lament about the pristine state of water having been irreversibly soiled by human activity.
Thus, Watermark brilliantly captures the tragic catch-22 of human relationship with water: without it, human life would not be possible; our survival, by its very nature, presumes a gradual depletion of water sources.
Watermark first arrived in Vancouver for this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival; it is now playing in wide release at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.