Watermark — Chronicles the Degradation of Earth’s Precious Commodity


Have you looked through coffee-table book? There will be lot of gorgeous pictures, offering minimal context. Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s “Watermark” (2014) is one such documentary that artfully explores the way how humans are changing the planet, without offering a single statistic or news footages or interviews. As the renowned still photographer Burtynsky expresses, “How does water shape us and how do we shape water?” and to seek an answer to his question, he visited 10 countries around the world.

The two Canadians Baichwal and Burtynsky previously co-directed a documentary titled “Manufactured Landscapes” (2006). “Watermark” is companion pieces to that project as the grand panoramic shots forces us to gawk at the environmental devastation. Five years in the making, the documentary hop scotches to China, India, Greenland, Mexico and many other areas. The opening scenes show water getting released at a Chinese dam (Xiaolangdi Dam). The dam is over 4,300 feet wide, more than 500 feet tall and capable of displacing 30 million tons of silt downstream in a year. We could feel awe and angst as the water slams against concrete barriers of the dam.


We see a bird’s eye view of a tannery district in Dhaka (Bangladesh), where the residents swim and bathe their children in the foul discharges as the leather goods are bound for wealthy Americans and Europeans. We veer into Mexico’s Colorado River, where an old Mexican woman wandering over a dried up patch of the river, recalling how the Basin, once abundant with fish, was cut off from the ocean by a water diversion project.

In Rajastan, India, we look at the incredible built 12th century step-wells. These wells were built, anticipating the hundred years of rainfall, but are now desperately seeking for little moisture. Another striking image from India is the one where millions of pilgrims surrender them to water as they gather for ritual baths in the river bank of Allahabad. We watch scientist drilling the ice sheet in Greenland to understand about the weather patterns; gargantuan Bellagio water fountains of Las Vegas; fishery in the East China, where the abalone farmers plunder even the tiny sea creatures; and the water-starved California’s Imperial Valley.


Baichwal and Burtynsky mostly allow the images to speak for themselves and don’t draw any conclusions. Although the project clearly speaks about environmentalism, there is no preaching. It gives something to think about. Burtynsky has used specially adapted photographic equipment and helicopters to give the exceptional bird’s eye or god’s eye view. Nonetheless, the documentary really drags at times, unfocused and also very slow. Yes, the aesthetic images are interesting to look at, but the movie lacks the tightening grip of “Manufactured Landscapes” or “Baraka”. The directors aren’t playing the activist role, but the project could have more meaningful than it is.

“Watermark” (92 minutes), thematically leaves us desiring for something, but viscerally it is flawless. The imagery makes us ponder over our relationship with water and how we are slowly degrading it.

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