You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Watermark’

A Canadian photographer dedicated to chronicling how man affects the environment turns his attention from land to water with mesmerizing results.

Edward Burtynsky, Inocencia Gonzalez Sainz, Marcus Schubert, Bill Nance, Rafikul Islam Sarkar, Oscar Dennis, Lin Jianqing, Huang Aiyun, Jorgen Pedder Steffensen, Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Zhou Shaowu, Polly Hankins, Bai Yunfei, Luo Zhengliang, Maharaja Sri Madvacharyaji, Gerhard Steidl. (English, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Mandarin dialogue)

Considering how radically photographer Edward Burtynsky has already transformed the way we view man’s impact on his home planet, one might reasonably ask what the Canadian artist could possibly do to advance his already eco-conscious oeuvre. Turns out the answer couldn’t be simpler: Just add water. In “Watermark,” Burtynsky reteams with “Manufactured Landscapes” director Jennifer Baichwal, stepping up to co-direct this massively ambitious, visually arresting survey of all things aquatic. Expanding the alternately hypnotic and horrifying quality of Burtynsky’s photographic work to the bigscreen, this more avant-garde collaboration isn’t just a portrait of the artist, but a bona fide art film.

Unlike the vast majority of landscape photographers, Burtynsky isn’t drawn to the dwindling number of unspoiled vistas on earth, but the ever-growing number of spots where humans have permanently altered their environment. In many cases, people aren’t even visible in these aftermath photos, though they are invariably responsible for the transformations depicted therein — as in the mesmerizing opening shot, which looks like some sort of deep-space nebula, but turns out to be a plume of water gushing from China’s Xiaolangdi Dam.

This scene, which graces the cover of the artist’s newly published monograph, “Water,” is actually far more powerful when observed in motion. Indeed, in the time since Baichwal and Burtynsky made “Manufactured Landscapes,” the shutterbug has embraced 5K digital video cameras as an exciting new tool to heighten the effect he’s long pursued with still photography. Whereas some artists invite a crew to document the process behind their latest exhibition, Burtynsky takes a collaborative role, such that the film ultimately represents the apotheosis of the project. After the previous film, he came to recognize cinema as the coin of the realm — an effective way to communicate with a mass audience that his fine-art work couldn’t reach.

As such, “Watermark” isn’t an afterthought, but the main course, and pulling it off meant innovating ways to record extremely hi-definition footage alongside the photos he exhibits in galleries, no matter how complicated the apparatus required. Burtynsky’s solutions range from simple cranes to remote-control helicopters, like the one used to fly his Hasselblad over Luoyuan Bay, a Chinese aquaculture site where floating abalone farms stretch as far as the eye can see. Burtynsky has a way of rendering such enclaves so as to look almost abstract, as in the unique perspectives he chooses for such diverse locations as Texas’ pivot irrigation circles (viewed from directly overhead) or a system of Indian stepwells (with their sharp M.C. Escher-esque angles). Trying to find a complimentary style for the film doesn’t always translate into a coherent flow.

Given Burtynsky’s preference for photographing everything at an extreme distance, it’s somewhat surprising that “Watermark” also features a fair amount of detail-oriented footage alongside its many large-format tableaus. Although Burtynsky seems determined to remove himself as much as possible from the film, he and Baichwal leave room for other “characters,” featuring disembodied narration from a Native guardian of Canada’s Stikine River Watershed or one of the few residents left in Lone Pine, where the water of Owens Dry Lake was long ago redirected to Los Angeles.

Burtynsky occasionally supplies a bit of explanation himself, but typically withholds both judgment and context. Despite its environmental focus, the film is not an eco-alarmist call to action, a la “An Inconvenient Truth,” but rather a survey of where things stand with the world — an invaluable record of our collective handprint for present and future generations. Since water covers 71% of the planet, Burtynsky rightly chronicles man’s social connection to the stuff, which explains a sequence in which millions of Hindu pilgrims assembled to bathe in the Ganges dissolve into California girls turning cartwheels on a beach, as well as the U.S. Open of Surfing.

Occasionally, the film relies upon meditative music to link its awe-inspiring images together, but mostly, each sequence exerts its own natural sound. Judging by the sheer range of locations involved, assembling the film must have been an enormous editorial challenge, especially with its 180:1 footage ratio, which means that for every minute that made the cut, three hours were left on the editing room floor. Despite the staggering range of material “Watermark” manages to present — Burtynsky’s five-year undertaking is certainly the most encompassing survey any one artist has ever dedicated to the subject — it’s still just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.

Film Review: 'Watermark'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 6, 2013. (Also in Berlin Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: (Canada) An Entertainment One (worldwide) release of a Sixth Wave Prods. presentation, produced with the participation of Skion Gmbh, Ontario Media Development Corp., the Canada Media Fund, Rogers Documentary Fund, in association with the Media Network, Movie Central, with the assistance of Shaw Media-Hot Docs Completion Fund, Ontario Film and Television Tax Credit, Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit. Produced by Nicholas de Pencier. Executive producers, Edward Burtynsky, Daniel Iron.

Crew: Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky. Written by Baichwal. Camera (color, HD), Burtynsky, Daniel Iron; sound, Nicholas de Pencier; sound designer/supervising sound editor, David Rose; re-recording mixers, Lou Solakofski, Rose; visual effects supervisor, Bret Culp; visual effects producer, Matt Daly; associate producer, Noah Weinzweig.

With: Edward Burtynsky, Inocencia Gonzalez Sainz, Marcus Schubert, Bill Nance, Rafikul Islam Sarkar, Oscar Dennis, Lin Jianqing, Huang Aiyun, Jorgen Pedder Steffensen, Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Zhou Shaowu, Polly Hankins, Bai Yunfei, Luo Zhengliang, Maharaja Sri Madvacharyaji, Gerhard Steidl. (English, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Korea Box Office: 'MAL·MO·E' and 'Inside

    Korea Box Office: 'MAL·MO·E' and 'Inside Me' Remain on Top

    There was no change at the top of the Korean box office, as local titles “MAL·MO·E: The Secret Mission” and “Inside Me (a.k.a. The Dude in Me)” dominated a second weekend. Lotte’s “MAL·MO·E” earned $4.79 million from 618,000 admissions between Friday and Sunday for a total of $16.7 million from 2.23 million admissions after two [...]


    China Box Office: ‘Bumblebee’ Flies on to $138 Million Total

    “Bumblebee” flew to its third weekend of dominance in China. But the Chinese box office remains in lackluster mode at the start of 2019. The spinoff from Paramount’s “Transformers” franchise earned $16.1 million in Chinese theaters between Friday and Sunday, according to date from exhibition and distribution consultancy Artisan Gateway. That was a 38% drop [...]

  • Mara Watkins Nabhaan Rizwan Steven Wouterlood

    Diverse Talents Pepper Variety's Fifth 10 Europeans to Watch List

    Variety has unveiled its fifth edition of 10 Europeans to Watch, spotlighting 10 rising talents from across the continent who are poised for breakthroughs in 2019. The selection includes emerging actors, directors, showrunners and cinematographers from six countries whose dynamic talents are being showcased on screens big and small, and on both sides of the camera. [...]

  • Glass Movie

    Box Office: 'Glass' Shines Overseas With $48.5 Million Weekend

    After autobots and aquatic kings have dominated foreign markets over the past few weeks, a different kind of hero has risen to the top of box office charts. M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” is the new champ overseas, pulling in $48.5 million from international territories. The supernatural thriller, a sequel to 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2016’s “Split,” debuted [...]

  • Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf

    'Roma' and 'The Favourite' Lead London Critics' Circle Winners

    After ruling the U.S. critics’ award circuit, “Roma” continued its dominance on the other side of the pond, as the London Film Critics’ Circle announced its winners tonight. A week after landing seven BAFTA nominations, Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexico City memory piece landed film of the year and director of the year honors from the group [...]

  • M. Night Shyamalan Should Stop Writing

    The Big Twist M. Night Shyamalan Needs: He Should Stop Writing His Own Scripts (Column)

    Quick, name the greatest film by each of the following directors: Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, David Lean, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Kathryn Bigelow, Jonathan Demme. Answers will vary (mine would be: “Psycho,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Nashville,” “Chinatown,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Silence of the Lambs”), but whatever your taste, odds are that [...]

  • Andy Vajna Dead: 'Rambo' Producer and

    Andy Vajna, 'Rambo' Producer, Dies at 74

    Andy Vajna, executive producer of several “Rambo” films as well as “Total Recall” and several “Terminator” movies, died Sunday in Budapest after a long illness. He was 74. The Hungarian National Film Fund confirmed his death, calling him a “dominant figure in the Hungarian and international film industry” who was responsible for the development of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content