Watermark and Manufacturing Landscapes

Watermark, a high-profile Canadian production co-directed by world-famous Toronto-based photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, opened on movie screens across Canada on September 27th. I was present for its initial screening at TIFF and had high hopes for the film. An earlier film of Burtynsky photographs, Manufacturing Landscapes (2006), has won widespread acclaim. Burtynsky specializes in industrial sites, big scenes and large landscapes. His vision is dramatic, awe-inspiring, and brings beauty to the most unlikely places. His scope is international and always provocative.

Watermark uses Burtynsky’s photography to illustrate the relationship between water and man; how man has used water to impact the environment, and vice versa. Such a film is an ambitious enterprise, and no project can be comprehensive. Watermark has images showing, among other things, the effects of the Colorado River project on the uplands of Mexico and on California, the size of the Xiluodu dam in China (eight times that of the Hoover Dam in the United States), intimate details of the Hindu Kumbh Mela rituals when thirty million people bathe in the Allahabad river in one day. By way of contrast, the film shows the pristine Stikine river in northern British Columbia, and the organic view that western Canadian First Nations have of water. All these images are worth the price of admission.

As much as I liked the actual photography, I thought the film was less successful than its predecessor. At 92 minutes, I thought it dragged a little. Long, slow shots are part of Burtynsky’s modus operandi and can have enormous impact. In this screening, I thought they were over-used. As a B.C.-ite, pristine water both on the coast and in remote interior lakes, streams and rivers is in my blood. I love to look at pictures of such waters, but even I found the helicopter photography over the Stikine River unduly prolonged. I also found that the film lacked markers to help viewers understand where they were and the significance of what they were seeing. The opening sequence seems to go on forever and I missed the indication (if any) of where it was taken. The lengthy footage of the Xiluodu dam emphasized the immense size of the dam (à la Manufacturing Landscapes) rather than the relationship of its water to the countryside around it. Juxtaposing it with images of the negative effects of the American Colorado River project suggests future dangers, but are the projects analogous? I totally missed the relevance of the pictures showing Burtynsky’s German publishers producing his book. Do the printing presses require undue use of water?

Reviews of the movie which have appeared since I saw it have generally been very positive, suggesting that my observations may well be quibbles or ill-informed. Whatever, the movie will provoke all sorts of discussion. The photography is astounding and the issues of utmost importance. If you know Burtynsky’s work, you will already be planning to see the movie. If you are not, then I would urge you to do so; you will be amazed. And do check out Manufacturing Landscapes if you have not yet seen it.

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