Film Review: WatermarkStunning images aren't quite matched by a coherent theme.
A lush essay film about the world's most precious resource, Watermark reunites the director (Jennifer Baichwal) and subject (art photographer Edward Burtynsky) of 2006's Manufactured Landscapes, but this time puts them both on the same side of the camera. The jointly directed film is a big step up aesthetically from the first outing, where low-res video didn't always do justice to Baichwal's on-target direction, and it will be enthusiastically received by Burtynsky's fans in the fine-art world. But thematically it is a lesser film, hazily raising environmental issues that peter out, whereas Landscapes made its points through collections of images that spoke for themselves. The doc merits a big-screen release but won't set art houses on fire.
The film travels along with Burtynsky as he takes the photos that became the recently published art book Water. We visit gargantuan dams in China, the dried-up remains of Mexico's Colorado River delta, the Ganges and more, usually talking to some local about the way water is used. "How does water shape us; how do we shape water?" the photographer asks. And in his signature large-format images, he finds diverse answers: "step wells" in Rajasthan, where mazes of stairs lead deep into the earth and plains in Texas where a horizon-stretching pattern of circular green crop fields is watered by the Oglala Aquifer.
DP Nicholas de Pencier (Baichwal's husband) takes the scale and sensibility of Burtynsky's images and adds movement on occasion—as in crane shots at a dam under construction—delivering truly stunning scenes. The picture's clarity is almost always sufficient to match the drama. But the pursuit of beauty sometimes takes the film places that don't advance its subtle narrative: The spectacular fountains at Las Vegas' Bellagio hotel demand an enormous waterflow in the middle of a desert, but no one onscreen speaks to that conflict.
The film isn't entirely sure if it is the document of a book's creation, a value-added augmentation of that project, or a thing unto itself. Scenes on location are interspersed with the photographer back home examining proofs and of printing presses rolling out finished pages. While Burtynsky sometimes makes onscreen comments that expand on some of the work's themes, viewers are left to wonder about the movie he might make if he stopped focusing on static images long enough to conceive a fully formed artwork that conveys its entire essence to viewers within the 90 minutes they watch it in theatres.
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