“Watermark”, the latest film by Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal, is a companion piece to their earlier “Manufactured Landscapes”. It opens in silence with what looks a cloud and then a tidal wave arching across the entire screen, which is then pulled back to reveal the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River in China. The movie takes in a tannery in Bangladesh releasing a torrent of blue-dyed water into a river, millions of people bathing in the Ganges River, California surfing, and Las Vegas water shows.
Despite the long aerial tracking shot of a Canadian River, (It’s surely not possible to make a movie about water that doesn’t include this.) the movie is about man’s manipulations of water, irrigation systems, dams, landscapes left parched by its removal. This stops it from being a sentimental travelogue about beautiful water: no souring string sections or thundering brass, instead music that provides a subdued counter-point, music on a different current from the visual.
Still, Burtynsky can’t stop himself from creating gorgeous quilt-like patterns, watering our emotions with images of the fearsome power of engineering projects. By making us feel we ought to constrain our admiration for something that is obviously terrifyingly bad, he delivers an environmental equivalent of a pornographic hit.
As Canadians sitting on about 32 per cent of the world’s fresh water in the biggest country in the world with a population less than California’s, we watch this movie from a vantage point different from just about everyone else on the planet. We are bounced between the almost universal anxiety about water insecurity to our own water guilt for having so much.
(Maybe having so much environmental stuff that much of the world is short of, explains why we have a reputation for being quiet and self-effacing. We don’t want people to cotton on to what we have.)
But are we less likely to be profligate users of water after watching this movie? Are we more likely to want to throw up the barricades to keep the water-starved people out? Where are the adults to ensure we don’t become xenophobic water hoarders but responsible conservationists?
You can read about “Watermark” at http://www.burtynsky-water.com