Water is the source of all life on Earth. The first organisms originated in the prehistoric seas, and then partly evolved into the various vertebrates and invertebrates that eventually managed to conquer the land. But many animals remained loyal to the water, so that the oceans and rivers of the world are still littered today with fascinating creatures of often very diverse plumage. Fish of all colors and sizes, marine mammals, amphibians or beautiful sea turtles, in almost every animal group you will find species that are fully or partially equipped for an aquatic existence. But almost all land animals and plants still have a close relationship with the water and are even dependent on it. A fact that certainly applies to humans. It is no coincidence that the first human settlements and most of the major cities arose along rivers or coastlines, streams of life and abundance that allowed our species to slowly but surely grow into a sedentary lifestyle. Water is of course also indispensable for farming, while rivers and oceans, as natural transport routes, have always made a substantial contribution to trade and economic growth.
Watermark is the third and final installment in photographer Edward Burtynsky’s water series. In this multimedia project, which also consists of a book and a photo exhibition, Burtynsky explores the relationship of people with water. For “Watermark” he again collaborated with director Jennifer Baichwal, with whom he also previously made the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes”. Over a period of three years, the pair visited a total of ten countries that have a special relationship with water. The central question is how the water shapes us and we the water. Today, man is no longer a species that undergoes the vagaries of nature and climate merely passively, but himself sometimes exerts a great (usually not very good) influence on these two phenomena.
One of the first scenes from “Watermark” already impressively shows how indispensable water is for humans. As the camera slowly zooms out, we see a dilapidated dinghy in the midst of an enormously desolate, bone-dry landscape taking the guise of a stranded loner, a silent reminder of a time when the Colorado River still flowed through this same landscape and fish were found in abundance and could be caught. The opening clip is visually a nice harbinger of the rest of the film. The aerial images and detail shots of mega-sprayed fields, imposing but also often melting glaciers, coastal areas characterized by ebb and flow, rippling rivers and the rice terraces in Asia often winding like gigantic snakes through the landscape are impressive. Commentary is scarce, because Baichwal and Burtynsky mainly use images and montage as narrative structures. Contradictions (for example between the Chinese sea snail farmers living on floating islands and the desolate emptiness that has become the reclaimed part of the Colorado) are often used as a storytelling tool. There is usually little question of a truly coherent storyline due to the thematic fragmentation. Various storylines about the relationship between humans and water are discussed, but they are often not explored sufficiently, so that it all remains rather superficial. You will therefore not gain many new insights after viewing “Watermark”. For example, that we are depleting many freshwater sources at an irresponsibly high rate, and that we can use these natural lifelines more sustainably, is generally known and in fact an open door.
Although “Watermark” often comes across as a largely fragmentary collection of stories and images and lacks the necessary interpretation and depth, thanks to the beautiful, sometimes even hypnotically beautiful images, the documentary manages to impress at times.