When watching a documentary like Watermark, I think it’s important to ask yourself why you are in a theater to see said film. Are you interested in learning about water? Simply intrigued by such a vague subject—and one must admit that a movie about water, without specifying a certain issue (say dams or overuse or groundwater) is vague. Are you entertained by documentaries?
Directors: Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky
Producers: Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier, Daniel Iron
Cinematographer: Nicholas de Pencier
Editor: Roland Schlimme
Premiere: September 6, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 4, 2014
US Distributor: Entertainment One
This is an important question, I think, for many reasons. Watermark, from directors Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky (of Manufactured Landcapes fame), is a ninety -minute film about water. It is gorgeous, and many of the subjects spoken to are mesmerizing. Personally, I could stare at turbulent water for ages, so spellbinding are waterfalls and rapids that I’ve had to be shaken from my reverie by friends. And so Watermark is easy on the eyes; the cinematography, by Nick de Pencier, interspersed with still photos by Burtynsky (who is releasing a gorgeous book about the subject), some of the most arresting images I’m guessing you’ll see all year.
And yet, what is this movie about? What does it want to achieve? The directors have assembled some amazing personalities to discuss water, and yet they also leave out crucial information, speak with people whose authority we can only wonder about (or openly question), and in the end offer no solutions or even difficult questions. Watermark is essentially a movie version of a coffee table book—something we enjoy thumbing through, but nothing that lasts, nothing that spurs us to action.
There is no real plot to Watermark. We go from the delta of the Colorado River in Mexico—a sad sight, where the delta dies before it reaches the sea, like a thirsty man croaking in the desert, reaching for nothing—to water gushing through the Xiluodu hydroelectric dam (on the Jinsha River) in China. Already the juxtaposition is interesting, and yet raises more questions than anything, and avoids confrontation. U.S. dams have hurt the Colorado, and yet it’s clearly more interesting to shoot the Chinese ones (in terms of size and scale—the Chinese dams are the greatest the world has ever seen). Not to mention, there’s no discussion as to why the Chinese are making these dams—yes, for electricity (clearly), but maybe a discussion about how that electricity is fueling factories that make the cell phones and iPads for Americans might have been nice. (Or publishing companies—however, and to their credit, I believe Burtynsky’s books, through German publisher Steidl, are made in Germany.)
The filmmakers cherry pick certain moments that, isolated, have charged meaning. At one point, in one of the very few things we hear a Chinese worker say while laboring on the dam, we hear “Doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s OK” (in subtitles of course.) What does this mean? Are we supposed to think that this reflects a shoddiness on the part of the Chinese? Are they cutting corners, or maybe this is, say, something of little meaning to the project?
Or consider the moment where Burtynsky flies with pilot Bill Nance over the Texas panhandle, where circular farms are fed with water from the ever-shrinking Ogala Aquifer. We hear that once you had to drill sixty feet for water; now we’re looking at 800 feet (my numbers might be off as I’m taking this from memory—the point’s the same.) First, why is this pilot the expert in question? Second, we then get a series of still, gorgeous shots (one called “Pivot Irrigation #1”) of one of these farms, going from lush green, to mottled with brown, to being overrun with brown, to appearing totally dead. First, is this due to that farm’s inability to drill for water? You could make the same photos here in Minnesota, farms bursting with green to being overrun with brown death simply because the seasons are changing. And even if these farms are going fallow… isn’t that kind of the result we’re seeking? The farms didn’t exist prior to drilling for water—but these questions are never raised, much less answered.
There are some great interviews, with Oscar Dennis, a “Native from northern British Columbia” (as the press notes state), who makes some very poetic observations about our relationship with the water, and how the sky touches the mountains and feeds the rivers. But I’d like to know a bit about this man. Isolating him here, simply putting his name on the screen and allowing him to talk in a way reduces him to a mystic Native American stereotype. What does he do? What is his relationship with water or with the world.
Nothing is examined in Watermark in any great detail…heck, in any moderate detail, even. From the amazing step wells in India, the grotesque leather tanneries in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the frigid icescapes of Greenland, to the Abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay, China, we get glimpses and gorgeous shots of these water-specific areas, and a few isolated interviews that give the documentary a rich human touch, but no details to inflame our anger or even our curiosity.
Personally, I found Watermark to be a relaxing movie, such is its beauty, but walking out of a movie ostensibly tasked with raising troubling questions about our most valuable resource and feeling like you’ve just had a massage is probably not the result anyone desired. But what more is to be taken from Watermark? Perhaps by tackling water as a whole—and really, there probably could not be a more complex subject—the filmmakers are incapable of raising anyone’s ire, and succeed only in creating a work that would be better suited for a gallery opening.