Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air features an opening credit sequence that consists of a montage of aerial photography. We move from place to place, sudden shifts from farmland to irrigation plants, cityscapes to coastlines. It seems almost alien, these areas from above appear so vibrant in colour and the shapes so perfectly arranged. When it comes to the landscape around us, we tend to forget the wider picture, both aesthetically and environmentally. In Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark this concept of looking at the wider picture is paramount. Like in Reitman’s film, here we are treated to a vast array of landscapes seen from above, though rather than serving as an introduction, they are at the core of this documentary, which looks at the way in which we interact with water today.
We open on a torrent of water and water spray, the image slowed down so it appears like an avalanche slowly cascading across the frame. There’s a sense of immense scope and wonder in the image, despite the instant abstraction, as we have no idea where, or exactly what, this is. We then cut to a much wider angle, we are at the edge of the Xiaolangdi Dam in China, as the torrent of water, now reduced in size, is not something gargantuan but rather a controlled letting of water. We see the silhouettes of tourists taking photos and instantly the juxtaposition of man and nature is on display, a recurring editing device within the film.
Throughout the film we move across the globe in an exploration of water, from a scientific study of ice in Greenland, the dust-ridden Owens Lake in California, to a thirty-million person strong religious bath in Allahabad, yet we keep cutting back to two elements – the construction of the Xiluodu, a huge dam in China, and the photographic process of Burtnsky, the film essentially following the conception of his book, Water.
With regards to this exploration of the world, the aerial photography used is one of the most technically interesting elements. The filmmakers do more than just fly a plane overhead, in shooting the construction of the Xiluodu they (presumably) use drones to capture angles and perspectives impossible to capture with traditional filmmaking techniques. A scene in which Burtynsky is photographing the step wells in Rajasthan acts as a more intimate physical example of how evolutions in technology regarding photography has allowed a more detailed ability to capture the landscape around us. The film is also shot in 5K digital, cinematographer Nick de Pencier expertly crafting stunning and powerful images, both from above and on the ground.
The film doesn’t just stay within the expanse of nature, though, a sequence in which we go underwater and into the control room of the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas is one of the best edited segments in the entire film and once more echoes the opening shots in revealing how the manipulation of water has become an attraction in unto itself. The decision to avoid dialogue in this sequence was also beneficial, though the film’s lack of uniformity from scene to scene with regards to voiceover and storytelling conceits does grate at times.
The film’s major issues are in its structure; it meanders along and its actual message is diluted in response. Whilst there is an element of restraint in narration, seemingly akin to Koyaanisqatsi in its preference for visual storytelling, this comes at the expense of an overall narrative drive. Many of the sequences in the film feel appear as loosely connected short films, beautifully shot but lacking any substantive connection other than the fact that water use features in them. It is unable to achieve the loose and engaging pace of a documentary like Life in a Day, and it would have perhaps been more streamlined if the film had clearly set itself out alongside a series of Burtynsky’s photos; as much as returning to his book is interesting, it muddles the order of the stories being told.
Watermark is less a fully-formed argument than an interesting and visually arresting experiment in photography. Even the film’s closing credits display a gorgeous sense of contrast in colour and tension through movement. Whilst its message of water conservation is an important one, it often fails to make clear exactly what it wants to say and through what means. As a montage of global life, though, it is compelling and eye-opening.
If you missed the film at Dungog Festival, it is available to stream online over at VHX.