Watermark, the second collaboration between filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky, opens feistily. Colossal waves layered thick with silt crashing violently against each other, spray fizzing across the frame. Captured in a style of vivid slow-motion photography that looks more like painting than video, in a palette heavy on browns and greys as much as the expected oceanic whites and blues, the image's borders cropped of all visual context, and set against a roaring wall of oceanic sound - it is a scene of totalising abstraction. From this, a stark cut to an image of parched land, silent and empty, broad cracks forming a canvas of abstract expressionism. A scene of absolute aridity takes us from an abundance of water to the complete absence of it in two arresting images. Later outward zooms provide a broader visual context - the waves are those created by the astonishing release of the Xiluodu Dam, and the cracks those left at the site of the dried out Colorado River delta. This context does little to amplify the visual power of the opening images - water and the human use of it, water and the absence of it.
So begins an examination into man's relationship with nature, or more specifically with water, that great mass that supposedly occupies 71% of the earth, and around 50 - 65% of our bodies. Spanning the course of the globe for examples of man's interaction with water, Watermark shows activities as disparate as bathing in the Ganges, farming for abalone on the Fujian coast or drilling deep into the Greenland ice sheet, and illustrates vividly the central part water plays in our existence on this earth. It might be expected that water's importance would be understood already by most, what with us using it constantly to drink, wash and irrigate with, but Watermark sets out nobly to reinforce both our understanding of the substance's importance, and of the complications surrounding our various interactions with it. Left without comment, the footage alone should be enough to stress both water's value, and the ruinous effect of our destruction of its sources,and often is. The film's failing is its desire to want to get this across, both verbally and visually, but frequent inability to compellingly do so.
Burtynsky's life work is described by the photographer himself (who speaks frequently onscreen about his process and aspirations) as a 'lament' for change and loss to the natural landscape. Whether this is by way of human erosion, alteration and destruction, Burtynsky's capturing of 'manufactured landscapes' (the subject and title of Baichwal and Burtynsky's previous film together) such as dams, irrigation channels and farms serves as much to illustrate what the landscape is like in its natural state, as in the altered ones he photographs so remarkably. The film's best moments are its most purely cinematic ones - narration-free, gliding camera scenic tours that swoop across the various environments to a post-rock driven soundtrack. Careful compositions illustrating the might and expanse of water's place on earth.
This particular project, tied to Burtynsky's photographical book Water, relates to the question of 'how water shapes us and how we shape water,' says Burtynsky early on, about 'the interplay between what nature has provided and what technology can do.' These descriptions are a little simple really, but that is understandable. Burtynsky is after all a image maker first, and conservationist second. It does however, demonstrate the problem with this accompanying documentary, and perhaps where Baichwal can be faulted. Making assumptions about the labour divide, the more artistically inclined and abstractly leaning segments of pure, silent visual splendour that it might be expected comes from the eye of Burtynsky fares better than the more message-led documentary-style moments of interview, commentary and information that presumably are the focus of Baichwal, a documentarian by trade. Though perhaps less important in terms of the film's message, the sections featuring rolling helicopter footage of wildly parting river tributaries and sprawling skylines impress and impose more than the talking head information dumps that intersect them.
Other than the titular thematic link - the segments, geographically and aesthetically disparate and distractingly organised, together lack continuity and the choices of construction, ordering and editing is often slightly difficult to understand. It might have worked better as a commentary free extended visual exploration in the style of Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke's environmental timelapse films (Koyaaniqatsi, Samsara etc.) As a statement film, its slightly under thought out, but as an aesthetic exercise, though not entirely satisfying either, it is frequently incredibly eye-catching. The moments of greatest abstraction - the searchingly diverting paths of a infinitely expanding Colorado river, the orange light enveloping bathers in the Ganges or the geometric incredulity of the Imperial Valley - are the most engaging and memorable. It is unfortunate that - considering the scope and scale of this ambition project, five years in the making - the structure doesn't better facilitate the content.