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Watermark: Terrible beauty in an epic water journey from Ed Burtynsky

End of day bathing at royal bath day, Kumbh Mela 2010 Watermark

Edward Burtynsky

3.5 out of 4 stars

Directed by
Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky

Hollywood loves beasts, but this is one you've never seen quite like this before. There it is, up on the screen, so immense you can only see parts of it at first. Is it a volcano spewing sideways? A skyscraper expelling plumes of concrete?

As filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Ed Burtynsky pull back the camera to survey the scene, it slowly becomes clear that it is, in fact, water. Thick with silt and angry from being held back, it explodes through a dam like a murderous thoroughbred. But, wait – why are Chinese tourists posing for vacation snaps in front of this roaring monster?

Because they know they have nothing to fear. In the corner of the screen, up comes a small bit of text to explain that we are observing the Xiaolangdi Dam Silt Release in Henan province, China, and we realize nature has bent to man's will.

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As it has half a world away, too, at the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive underwater reservoir that supports farming operations in seven American states. We're in a helicopter now, watching Burtynsky – he of the shimmering epic photographs – poking his camera through the floor of the chopper to capture the gorgeous earthly geometry below: the farms like multicoloured vinyl records laid out side by side.

Later, back in his Toronto studio, Burtynsky looks at the result of a shoot and then muses in a voice-over: "What am I trying to say to the viewer, and what does this have to do with water?"

He has many things to say in, though he will never do so directly. They are solemn things, sure: Water, after all, sustains almost all of our planet's life. But Burtynsky also has a fine eye for the absurd, like the backyard swimming pool his camera captures, which turns out to be floating within a man-made body of water, which itself is set within a planned rural community known as Discovery Bay, Calif.

Coming seven years after Baichwal's award-winning Manufactured Landscapes, which tracked Burtynsky as he photographed the colossal effects of industry in China, Watermark returns to the theme of man's heavy footprint on the landscape, finding more terrible beauty in the disruption.

It is an immersive version of his ravishing photographs: thrilling, terrifying and enraging all at once. Baichwal and her editors have staged the film as a series of tiny mysteries, dropping us into landscapes and then parsing out clues to help us figure out where we are. She plays with silence and sound like a symphony.

But if it's preaching you want, you'll need to go elsewhere. While Manufactured Landscapes flirted with a political point of view –Baichwal interviewed some Chinese workers, apparently in defiance of the authorities – Watermark resists didacticism. There are no bad guys, per se: just the inexorable march of so-called progress, which sometimes has a personal cost.

So here is an elderly woman forlornly surveying the parched bed of what was once the mighty Colorado River. Her face as cracked as the ground beneath her feet, she speaks in Spanish of how the river used to flow with fish. "Then it dried up, and we had to go," she says plainly. From above, the disappearing river resembles a jewel-coloured tree, its bare branches stretching fruitlessly into the distance.

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Watermark is billed as "10 countries, 20 stories – one epic journey," and you do sometimes feel as if you're on one of those whistle-stop package tours that would rather you not get too involved in the lives of the locals.

So here we are, in the Indian city of Bundi, Rajasthan, watching as Burtynsky sets up his camera to capture one of the city's famous step-wells: an inverted pyramid, with narrow stairs lining its walls, which has been excavated from hundreds of feet below the surface. It seems to have dried up, but who's to say if the rainy season fixes that?

After dropping in on what appear to be a series of dam construction projects in China, rather than merely regarding them with awe, you wish you'd learned more: their context, their geography, their purpose, their human and social costs.

Burtynsky allows that he is saddened by some of these developments that alter the natural world. "This work is a lament for their loss," he explains. His camera says everything else.

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