Review: ‘Watermark’ is an immersive experience in global water use

Los Angeles Times Film Critic

If “Watermark” does nothing else, it will make you question society’s contradictory view of water use. The clear liquid is as essential to human life as it is threatened, yet we don’t seem to be able to do what it takes to make sure it stays available enough to keep us alive.

As co-directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, “Watermark” is a kind of companion piece to the pair’s earlier “Manufactured Landscapes,” which looked at how new industrial structures are transforming the face of the planet.

Joined this time by expert cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier (who notes in the press material that none of his cameras fell in the water, though he himself did a few times), “Watermark” is most memorable for its elegant, eye-widening 5K ultra-high-definition video visuals that astonish by showing us the world in a particularly immersive way.


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Given co-director Burtynsky’s career as an accomplished photographer, this visual focus is no surprise. Though we do spend more time than is strictly necessary observing Burtynsky laying out his book and then watching as it is printed, that is a price worth paying for what we see here.

“Watermark’s” most boggling sights are in China, especially those surrounding the construction of the Xiluodu, the biggest arch dam in the world, and a project so large it’s actually frightening to gaze on close up.

For those with more California-centric interests, “Watermark” has images that are closer to home. We visit Lone Pine, the site of the famous Los Angeles water grab that inspired “Chinatown.” We also take a look at the water-rich Imperial Valley, but not until we’ve spent time on the parched Colorado River Delta in Mexico, where that Imperial Valley water used to go.

If that Chinese dam is disturbing for its size, other parts of the world are unnerving for what people are doing to their water.

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In the Indian city of Allahabad, we get a glimpse of what it looks like when 30 million people decide to bathe in the Ganges at the same time for the once-every-three-years Maha Kumbh Mela religious pilgrimage.

Surpassing even that as a kind of pollution central is Dhaka in Bangladesh, where the chemicals used for tanning leather, the area’s main export, go into the water system and do not do it any favors.

Upsetting in a different kind of way is time spent with scientists from the National Ice Laboratory in Greenland (yes, there is such a place) who drill into ice cores two kilometers (a little more than a mile) deep. To hear these people talk about global warming in one of the world’s coldest spots is unsettling.

Finally, though, it’s the majesty and beauty of water at its most pure that stays with us longest. “Watermark” closes with a remarkable moving aerial view of the pristine Stikine River in northern British Columbia shot by employing what the press notes describe as “remote controlled helicopters with gyro-stabilized controllable gimbals.” The words are technical, but the images are simply stunning.



No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: At Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles