TORONTO—If you think you know what water is, you don’t. Watermark, Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s documentary shot in 5K ultra high-def video, brings us on a trip to the hyperreal extremes of what water can be at its most powerful, plentiful—or absent.
Burtynsky and Baichwal shot 200 hours of footage in far-flung locations around the world, places where our ubiquitous relationship with H2O is particularly pronounced, and contested. Watching surfers at the U.S. Open in Huntington Beach, soaring above the Stikine Valley in B.C.’s North, or standing under the thundering falls at the Xiluodu mega-dam in China, it’s hard not to be awed by the sheer power of water and the human activity that threatens its purity. But what Watermark—which opens Friday (October 11)—doesn’t do is draw those conclusions for us. These days, it’s rare for a documentary to abstain from spoon-feeding the audience its message.
“My perspective is that reality is messy and complex, whereas narrative is often tidy and reductive,” said Baichwal, who grew up in Victoria and now lives in Toronto, in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. “Narrative has a structure that is satisfying because it has beginning, middle, and end. It has resolution. I don’t think reality has resolution in that way. I think things are open-ended, perspectival, and complicated, and I feel like all our films have tried to honour the complexity of reality.”
Thanks to impressive visuals and non-narrative flow, Watermark drenches our brains and floods our senses with the sheer magnitude of what Baichwal and Burtynsky have captured with their cutting-edge cameras. And for many, that can be enough.
“We knew it [our film] had to have a rhythm that was not bound by traditional assumptions about narrative—the visuals carry a lot of the weight of the meaning,” she said. “The other thing is that we want [Watermark to be] a journey that you go on, where you witness situations and environments that you would never usually be part of, the existential moment of people interacting with water. From a religious context to the industrial, from the polluted to pristine, all these things work across a continuum of the same extremes.”
Ironically, while as filmmakers they count on the effects that their spectacular images can have in place of narrative, Baichwal and Burtynsky are aware that younger audiences tend to be what’s referred to as “platform-neutral”. That is, they’re as likely to view a film or photograph on an iPhone or a seatback as they are in a theatre on the big screen.
“We’ve done a lot of work trying to create a cinematic experience in our films, one that is encompassing, experiential, and immersive,” said Baichwal, who admits that her notion of cinema is “very old-fashioned”.
“We had a really interesting discussion about shooting that landscape of the Stikine Valley,” she explained. “Ed was wondering how to photograph pristine nature while avoiding the genre of the calendar picture. I’m from B.C., so I was practically weeping because it was so beautiful, and Ed, who deals with human-altered landscapes, was wondering how to shoot in a place like that. And I think some of the best shots are these kind of abstractions of beauty, not beautiful in themselves.”