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Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, co-directors of the documentary Watermark. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, co-directors of the documentary Watermark. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

With Watermark, Burtynsky and Baichwal finally go with the flow Add to ...

Water covers 70 per cent of the surface of the planet and even when you can’t see it, it’s there – under your feet, as vapour in the air, buoying the 1.4-kilogram heft of your brain as it sloshes inside your skull. So when Torontonians Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky decided four years ago to make a feature-length documentary on something as immense and various as water, they knew they would be climbing a slippery slope. Or, as Baichwal put it in a recent interview, “testing how far can you take an idea, a multifaceted subject, and explore it without having it fall apart into complete generalities.”

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Luckily for them and the viewer, things do not fall apart in Watermark, as the finished documentary is now called. They flow. Flow for 92 minutes across the oceans, rivers, springs, ice fields and deserts of some 10 countries, the audience carried from one vignette or “thread” to another by the notion that just as water has decisively shaped our planet, so too has humanity long been shaping water for its purposes, albeit never so aggressively as now.

Culled from 200 hours of original footage, much of it shot from planes, cranes and helicopters (remote and piloted) in ultra-high-definition video by Baichwal’s husband, cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier, Watermark is filled with big moments and small, often within the same setting – from the arid Colorado River Delta and the banks of the Ganges at Allahabad where every 12 years 30 million Hindu pilgrims gather at the same time to wash away their sins, to the monstrous Xiluodu dam project on China’s Jinsha River (six times the size of Hoover Dam!), the toxic tannery district of Dhaka in Bangladesh and the largely unsullied Stikine River watershed in northern British Columbia. Is it any wonder it took 11 months of editing to bring Watermark to where it is now, ready for its world premiere Friday evening at the Toronto International Film Festival? (Luckily no cameras were drowned or destroyed in the making of Watermark.)

Baichwal freely admits “there’s no real narrative arc” to the documentary. Rather, it’s a complex accumulation of juxtapositions – the pristine and the profaned, secular and spiritual, the irreparable and the threatened, motion and stillness, East/West, abstract and human among them – strung along a continuum dealing with the various systems mankind has imposed on water. At the same time, it’s not a particularly didactic or overtly political film – intentionally so, notes Burtynsky, who’s long held to the view that “what you are seeing [should allow] you to arrive at and take ownership of your own conclusions and opinions in a way that’s far more powerful than being told how to think.”

Watermark is the second Baichwal-Burtynsky collaboration. At 58, Burtynsky, of course, is Canada’s most famous living phographer, known internationally for the terrible beauty of rail cuts and strip mines, oil fields, tailing ponds and junked ships he’s fixed in a series of big colour prints and hefty books. Indeed, the first Baichwal-Burtynsky tag-team, 2006’s award-winning Manufactured Landscapes, was largely about Baichwal, cinematographer Peter Mettler and crew trailing Burtynsky around China as the photographer captured that country’s epochal transformation into the Factory of the World. Though present in the film, Burtynsky finally wasn’t so much Manufactured Landscapes’ subject as the “author” (Baichwal’s term) of its content. It was less about biography, more about experience – “the attempt,” explains Baichwal, “to translate the world caught by Ed’s still photographs into a motion picture.”

Burtynsky’s involvement this time has been even more salient in that he shares both a directorial credit with Baichwal and that of executive producer (with Daniel Iron). Again, he’s a presence: At various points in the film, we see him photographing in a plane high above the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas, working with technicians in his Toronto studio, visiting his publisher in Germany, trying to bring shape and selection to 23,000 images. Yet for all his recurrence, he’s just one more character in a cast of water-wrestlers. In fact, it’s his aesthetic that one notices most in the film, not his screen time.Whereas Baichwal grounds the film with scenes, say, of rice-paddy workers in China’s Yunnan province, the impoverished Cucapa of Mexico or ice researchers in Greenland, it’s Burtynsky who takes it up, up and away.

Both Baichwal and Burtynsky were keen to work together post-Manufactured Landscapes. “But,” stressed Baichwal, “it had to be the right thing.” The possibility of a water project crossed Burtynsky’s radar first when, in 2008, he got a call from National Geographic magazine wondering if he could do “something on California and water.” Burtynsky already had been considering water as a possible subject. At the time he was winding down his famous, nearly-10-year exploration of oil, and thinking, “While oil is pretty ubiquitous, water’s at an even deeper core.” The issue, however, was the same as the one Baichwal would face when she came aboard later in 2009: “How to find a meaningful path through something as vast as water. Either there was something there or it was totally crazy to even think about it.”

For Burtynsky, it became “a sort of leap of faith. I figured if I got through China and I got through oil, I could find a way through water.” Eventually, he hit upon “water usage” as “the key inflection point,” then divided that organizing principle into five or six representational categories – water in agriculture (“since 70 per cent of humanity’s use of water goes to agriculture”), water as something to control, water “in distress,” human/water interaction at the shoreline.

Baichwal said she and de Pencier “tried to go along that same path for a while filmicly but it was very clear that the film had to operate a bit more, like, well … water. It needed to flow together in a way that was not structural.” While most films can at best handle four or five stories – which is what Baichwal’s penultimate documentary Payback (2012) did – here she was faced with 20 “different threads. It was,” she said with a laugh, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, trying to put that together in a way that had the rhythm of water, music, whatever but with enough information to ground the viewer and keep him from floating away.”

The inescapable Edward Burtynsky

Branding in the 21st century is a multiplatformed thing and, among contemporary Canadian artists, no one has done it better (or bigger) than Edward Burtynsky. He’s so famous, his epic oeuvre so familiar and widely dispersed (in more than 30 museums alone, including the Bibliothèque National in Paris and New York’s Museum of Modern Art) that you just have to say the last name, à la Karsh, Avedon, Penn, Leibovitz, to turn on the light of recognition. Now we’re on the cusp of perhaps the most ambitious promotion ever of the Burtynsky brand. In the next six to eight weeks, we’ll witness the release of the new film Watermark; the start of a series of international commercial gallery exhibitions (including a two-venue showcase in Toronto) of new, characteristically large-format prints; a raft of in-person appearances; and the publication of the bluntly (but aptly) titled Burtynsksy: Water, a hefty, full-colour book, 114 images in total, with a suggested list price of almost $135, produced by the distinguished German art house Steidl. Also imminent: an iPad app – a platform he first used last year for his Oil book. You may not drown in Burtynsky’s aqueous image universe this fall, but it’s going to be very hard not to get wet.

Watermark has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 6 and 8. It begins its commercial run in Toronto Sept. 27 and, after an appearance at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Oct. 10, plays selected Canadian cities starting Oct. 11.

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