“Sud Eau Nord Deplacer” director Antoine Boutet knows better than to wade into the political quicksand surrounding China’s Nan Shui Bei Diao project — a crazy idea dreamt up by Chairman Mao to transfer water from the country’s south, where it is plentiful, to its arid northern reaches — though the French video artist instinctively recognizes the enormous potential, both sociological and cinematic, in documenting the most ambitious attempt to redirect the flow of water in the history of humankind. Ironically, humankind happens to be what Boutet’s cold and impersonally distant film most lacks, starved for characters that would ensure that its arresting images resonate with more than just gallery crowds.
There’s not a single frivolous shot in Boutet’s meticulously edited (if somewhat less carefully composed) “meditation” — to borrow that overused film-critic euphemism, wherein one man’s tedium is another man’s transcendence. The trouble is, there’s as awful lot missing, including the fact that auds must wait nearly half an hour to get an explanation of what is is they’re watching. Only then does Boutet think to feature anything so mundane as a chief engineer talking about what this massive public-works project involves, likely a vestige of the helmer’s fine-art background, where his video and installation work places a greater burden on spectators.
Still, even in a context-free vacuum, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by some of the surreal images Boutet captures, including the sight of government workers planting trees in the desert (part of an immense “greening” project) and a once-thriving river reduced to a series of puddles. Every scene flows back to the pic’s central theme, including one fortuitous glimpse at a small-town TV set, on which Bruce Lee quotes a line from his “Longstreet” series: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water” — good advice for auds ruminating on that very subject and a fitting mantra for the director.
Boutet’s arm’s-length approach encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions about the absurdity of this undertaking. Working with a small crew, the helmer tags along for a bureaucratic tour of resettlement housing one moment (“With these villages, migrants are leaping forward 80 years with a single bound,” a spokesperson says), then delves behind the scenes the next to hear from the disgruntled farmers, upset about the cheap houses and lousy plots they’ve been given. While the Chinese public seldom see beyond the ubiquitous pro-Communist billboards and banners commenting on the project, Boutet doesn’t hesitate to trespass when necessary, elbowing through to the sites that are most affected to film either by himself or with a very small crew (one reason for the uneven visual and sound quality).
Bringing Western investigative instincts to a heavily censored environment, he aims to provide a more nuanced picture of how Nan Shui Bei Diao is transforming both the lives and landscapes of the country. On the latter front, the docu echoes photographer-turned-filmmaker Edward Burtynsky’s recent “Watermark” (a more profoundly artistic look at man’s global impact on water). But it’s the rare moments when Boutet focuses on individual people — including a dissident teacher who spent 19 years in prison awaiting rehabilitation, now singing and swimming near a newly constructed dam — that leaves the strongest impression. Though this huge government undertaking will affect millions, hearing from one or two does far more to reveal its implications.