The latest collaboration between filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky, Watermark follows the template of the duo’s prior outing, 2006’s Manufactured Landscapes. An activist alarm is sounded via entrancing imagery—both moving and still—underscored by occasional narration and dialogue. It’s an approach that, on a purely aesthetic level, can be hypnotic, as Baichwal and Burtynsky’s visuals have an alternate beauty and terror that speaks to their core subject, the perilous relationship between man and his water supply. Opening with the majestic sight of waves violently crashing into each other at the Xiaolangdi Reservoir on China’s Yellow River, the documentary then swiftly cuts away to silent panoramas of Mexico’s Colorado River, which has been drained so dry that the Earth is cracked seemingly beyond repair. Over and over again, the case for the preciousness of water is made through purely audio and video means.
Baichwal and Burtynsky’s non-fiction film travels not only from China to Mexico, but also from California to India to Las Vegas to Germany, documenting along the way the various means by which people engage with water. The balletic grace of the Bellagio’s famous fountains is paired with the immense construction of China’s Xiluodu Dam, the latter a monstrous vision of metal and machine that would be right at home in a Terry Gilliam dystopian sci-fi fantasy. Such juxtapositions between splendor and horror abound, and though there’s little overt commentary provided for each, Watermark’s constant comparisons make it difficult to miss the supposed inequality and exploitative abuse—committed by humans to their surroundings, by the rich to the poor, and by first-world countries to their third-world neighbors—being underscored here.
Unfortunately, while the documentary’s points are clear, its desire to articulate them primarily through contrasts neuters some of its persuasiveness. There’s a thinness to Watermark’s contentions about the potential perils of water misuse, due in large part to the filmmakers’ disinterest in dispensing much contextual information about the various vistas they present. Also given short shrift: the larger issue of climate change, which is ever-so-briefly discussed by researchers in Greenland examining ancient ice cores as a means of preparing for future global temperature fluctuations. Aerial shots of tributaries that look like poisoned veins (or withered trees), and of polluted streams emerging from tannery factories, strikingly communicate our simultaneous reliance on, and defilement of, vital water sources. Yet such moments can’t overshadow the fact that the film too often amounts to one-note agitprop preaching, even when it’s not saying a word.