The river must flow: Watermark ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2014)

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Oh, how pretty…depressing: Watermark

You know that schoolyard taunt, “Take a picture…it’ll last longer”? Sadly, that could one day become a truism in regards to our planet’s most essential element: water. This explains why photographer Edward Burtynsky refers to his beautiful yet disturbing bird’s-eye images that are featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s Watermark as a “lament” to this dissipating resource. I hear snickering. Water is a finite resource?! As long as it keeps raining, we’re cool, right? Until you recall that 97.5% of the water on Earth is saltwater (which we continue to pollute like there’s no tomorrow) leaving 2.5% freshwater…out of which 70% remains frozen in the polar icecaps (and they are shrinking). As Jacques Cousteau once wisely advised, “We forget that the life cycle and the water cycle are one.”

This documentary represents the second collaboration between Burtynsky and Baichwal; their first was 2007’s Manufactured Landscapes. In my review of that film, I wrote:

Burtynsky’s eye discerns a sort of terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated “modernization”. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on a kind of almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs begin to play like a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher.

Ditto the imagery paraded before us in Watermark. Like its predecessor, the film is equal parts visual tone poem and cautionary eco-doc; although the emphasis here is on mankind’s cavalier attitude toward that aforementioned link between the life and water cycles. Some happy exceptions are evidenced, within certain venerated rituals of Earth’s more ancient cultures.

One such event, the mass river-bathing ceremonies conducted by tens of millions of Hindu faithful who congregate at the confluence of India’s holiest rivers during the annual Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, provides the film’s most beautiful sequence. Yet, within a stone’s throw of the same Mother Ganges, we also witness the doings at a water-intensive Bangladesh tannery, where poisons are spewed right back into the water table. This is the maddening dichotomy that gets to the heart of the matter. At this point in time (and as evidenced by Burtynsky’s photographic “laments”) Mother Earth isn’t politely asking, she’s telling: Clean up your room…NOW.

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