Water. It covers 71% of the Earth’s surface. It’s vital for all known forms of life. It’s pure, it’s beautiful, and it’s awfully artistic, as seen in its leading role within Watermark, a documentary exploring “the extent to which humanity has shaped water, and how it has shaped us.” It’s the result of taking two award-winning documentary directors, Jennifer Bachiwal and Nick de Pencier, and soaking them with renowned Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky. While living beautifully on the big screen, this film can just as easily find a home on a gallery wall. It’s an amazingly produced documentary that’s excels in every category of film making, combining several elements to ultimately transform the way you think about water and your relationship to it.
Watermark takes viewers on a grand tour around the globe (10 countries), weaving together stories (20 in total) through that one common chemical compound we’ve all come to rely upon: H2O. The film makes great use of juxtaposition, allowing the ramifications of each location to become firmly understood when contrasted against its polar opposite. Whether it be jumping from the water-draining Ogllala Aquifer to the water-deprived Californian deserts of the Imperial Valley. Or from the toxic tanneries of Bangladesh to the coastal relief of the US Open for Surfing, every location has been selectively filmed and carefully placed within the film’s overarching narrative.
This isn’t the first time the film’s creators have collaborated. In fact, their previous offering, Manufactured Landscapes, was critically received—making use of Burtynky’s knack for capturing the world in manners never perceived previously. This time, they’ve made this famous artist a director and turned his lens upon water. The results are, well, refreshing. Captured in stunning 5K ultra-high definition video, it’s exemplary of those brilliant moments when science works symbiotically with art.
Watermark was born out of a project Burtynsky was shooting for National Geographic. Burtysnky has made an impressive career shooting industrial scenery—his work in the same vein of Andreas Gursky, but with more of an opinion on mankind’s influence. Burtynsky’s photographs have found themselves housed in over 50 museums worldwide, including the Guggenheim, and in 2005 they earned him the TED Prize.
His photography is often alternately hypnotic and horrifying, inspiring while alarming. When translated to motion, your brain has troubles keeping up, it’s simply unlike anything you’ve seen before. Watermark is a visual buffet, and just looking at it is worth the admission in itself. But when paired with the storytelling, you’re treated to a harrowing beauty that opens your eyes to the implications of humanity’s exploitation of water.
“Seventy per cent of human use of water is agriculture, and if we think of a singular activity that has changed the surface of the planet, it’s farming.”
Watermark’s visuals are placed at the forefront because this documentary adheres to showing, rather than telling. Our relationship with this planet is a touchy subject. While the documentary does takes a stance, it’s careful to eloquently place the argument before its viewers. It’s a means to documentary that is rare and ultimately rewarding. Viewers are able to walk away and form their own opinions on the topic. With Watermark, art becomes a vessel with which to portray the truth.
That being said: I believe the world would be in much better shape if everyone watched this documentary. I’ve always subscribed to the belief that nature is steadfast; nature was here before humanity, and will remain long after it. But Watermark has offered reasons to believe otherwise. In one of the interviews within the film, professor J.P. Steffensen comments that, “for the first time, we are not just passive watchers of what nature does, we are responsible.” It’s a chilling comment that’s none more clearer after viewing Watermark.
Follow Watermark’s Twitter and Facebook for updates and special events, and visit the website to find screenings near you. To view the series of photographs that sparked the creation of this film, check out Burtynsky’s site.