Humans need water. People are also made of water. And we affect water. The documentary, Watermark looks at the different experiences that society has with water, from celebration to pure science; from duress to progress and through spirituality and work, the many facets of this subject are covered by this ambitious project. But audiences will be left without their thirst for knowledge quenched because this film would work better if a greater depth were added to the storytelling.

The film is directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, the team who were also behind the documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, which looked at the impacts of manufacturing and industry on the environment. The film and images are stunning with Burtynsky (a nature photographer) using the most powerful, luminescent and visceral shots that are actually the kind of thing that should be shown at an IMAX theatre. These are combined with lots of incidental music and atmospheric tones, meaning there is little context being offered and even less threading these different vignettes together. The result is something that is full of different moods but it is sometimes difficult to understand why we should care about the information that is being offered.

The opening scenes show Innocencia González Sanz, a local resident who has seen the once abundant Colorado River in Mexico deteriorate. It was one that had been full of fish and life but has completely dried up and now looks like a barren desert. The filmmakers then show a strange interview on a plane with Bill Nance whose responses are difficult to hear over the radio.

During this part, however, the directors do capture the Ogallala Aquifer, a water table that is being strained as more water is being used then can be replenished. The aerial shots are disarming but some more facts and research would’ve helped strengthen the message. Instead, the directors rely too much on talking heads with little information to verify these claims and even less drawing together all of the different elements.

Along the journey through water we learn about how scientists analyse ice structures to learn about the atmosphere, temperature and other aspects about the Earth’s climate from thousands of years ago. There is an interview with a Native American, Oscar Denis, who talks about the spiritual connection between humans and water. It’s a point that is further confirmed by the 30 million people who travel on a pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges.

These personal stories in Watermark are telling, even though there are many tangents along the way (for example: to the US Surfing Open, the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas, abalone farming in China and leather manufacture in Bangladesh). The film is ultimately incohesive and haphazard and attempts to tackle too much (at once it is a celebration of water while at other points it looks at how we are destroying this very thing). The stills are gorgeous and it would make an amazing photo book but the overall story is where things fall over and one can’t help but feel like the film’s message has been diluted by its own subject matter.


Originally published on 17 June 2014 at the following website:

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