Water both resists and exists. It’s both the giver of life and the destroyer of futures. The Earth is covered by 71% of water, and it’s this enigmatic fact that renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky looks at in his latest documentary, Watermark (2013). The film alights though differing vignettes from spans continents and dives into the relationship water, the environment and humanity have and how all three struggle to coexist. This is explored in the huge floating abalone farms off China’s Fujian coast, the construction site of the biggest arch dam in the world – the Xiluodu, six times the size of the Hoover – and the barren desert delta left behind where the mighty Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean.
Watermark silently questions our current situation and how we seem to be walking straight towards an environmental disaster. The huge unspoken question of the film seems to be: How does water shape us, and then how do we shape water? Burtynsky does this via counterpoint that is reinforced by what we see rather than what we hear. From the opening shot of water firing sideways across grey industrial backgrounds, which is held for an oppressive amount of time; this combined with the cacophony of white noise created by the water we imagine to be the harbinger of destruction, eventually we learn we are watching the latest in Chinese grand construction: the Xiaolangdi Dam No. 1 on the Yellow River. This sequence terrifies and also leads one to think of the potential absence of this element.
The terror emanates from the over-abundance of water and the potential for what would happen when the water is absent. Across the globe Burtynsky observes the human need for water, not just on a physical level but a spiritual one too. We witness the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, where thirty million people gather for a sacred bath in the Ganges at the same time. Interviews range from workers whose land is starved of water to scientists who drill into the Greenland ice sheet. Watermark is the second film co-directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Burtynsky following on from 2006’s Manufactured Landscapes and it pins down and elaborates on Burtynsky’s life’s work: that of documenting the terrifying grandeur of industrialised monoliths.
Watermark is a more passive film than the previous collaboration and is in thrall to the sublime that has previously attracted such voices as Coleridge, Caspar David Friedrich and Ansel Adams. Burtynsky’s latest exists as the canary in the coal mine, a cri de coeur that is defeated by the arrogance of humanity’s blind following through with its manifest destiny. Water you see can not be beaten, its fluidity is which is what will stop you. It goes always where it wants and pre-dates humanity and will survive humanity also. This is arguably what the concept of ‘the sublime’ is ultimately all about – releasing ourselves from the scale of our species’ insignificance.