A documentary by Jennifer Baichwal. Rated G.
Like 2006’s Manufactured Landscapes, Jennifer Baichwal’s new Watermark opens with a startling, extended image that’s as disorienting as it is unsettling. A brown sea seems to broil like a massive witches’ brew, heaving and splashing in a giant roar. Is it some kind of polluted tsunami? A cyclone hitting a blackened ocean? You won’t figure it out before the film abruptly jumps from that deafening sound to silence, panning the endless cracks of a dry, white riverbed that stretches like parched skin across a plain.
We struggle to recognize these places because we have no reference for them in the natural world: they’re both human-made phenomena caused by hydroelectric dam projects in China and the southern U.S., respectively. They’re spectacular yet terrifying, much like this haunting new documentary.
In Landscapes, Baichwal followed renowned Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky to some of the most colossal industrial sites around the world; now, the artist has turned his camera lens on water, and the way humankind is impacting it. But Watermark is far more than a straight-up documentary about a photographer and his work. Instead, Baichwal uses film, to fascinating effect, to go deeper into what he captures in his pictures. Whereas Burtynsky flies overhead to shoot the astounding grid of abalone farms off China’s Fujian coast, Baichwal can take us down to eye level, where fishermen and women cook up the mollusks in the floating shacks they inhabit. Where his panorama shows the scale of millions of Hindu pilgrims converging on the Ganges River, Baichwal can take us into the murky water, where grey-bearded ascetics hold their noses to plunge beneath the surface.
Even more so than in Landscapes, Baichwal keeps the spoken explanations sparse and, like Burtynsky’s photographs, lets the imagery speak for itself, making chilling use of a soundtrack that underscores every scene with a sinister industrial rumble. White tannery toxins seeping into Bangladeshi rivers where parents bathe their children; towering dam projects that reduce red-helmeted Chinese workers to specks against concrete; giant rods of ancient ice being extracted from the Greenland crust: Baichwal manages to make these disparate scenes flow into a single, poetic river that is unfortunately headed in one hugely ominous direction.