Watermark, the movie and Canadian Water Guilt

“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.

Hole in rock

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

3 thoughts on “Watermark, the movie and Canadian Water Guilt

  1. Mike Green

    I loved Manufactured Landscapes. And I love Ed B’s photographic work in general.
    But I was really disappointed with this movie: there was not clear narrative arc to the movie, no story. And it flitted around the world so many times, I sometimes had no idea where we were or what we were looking at. Or more importantly, why?

    I hope I am alone in this, because I admire what (I think) he was trying to do. It just didn’t work for me (though the images, esp at the beginning, were amazing…as usual for Ed B.).

    My 2 cents…..Mike Green

  2. Penny Pepperell Post author

    I agree with the lack of a narrative arch, that’s why I fell back on describing this movie as a spectacle. The subject matter really couldn’t be brought to heel. There was bits of science stuff thrown in about recovering ice samples for example, but it didn’t add up. But still: big imposing visuals.

  3. George

    I am generally not clear if Ed’s motivation is to shock Us or of Human re-landscaping, or of planetary resource depletion. His work is none the less compelling us to wonder if progress (technological or economical) is worth scaring our plant for.

    My Thoughts…George

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