Liquid landscapes leaving their Watermark

Liquid landscapes leaving their Watermark

In their environmental documentary ‘Manufactured Landscapes’, the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and Canadian Director Jennifer Baichwal used incredible images to show us how the world’s growing population is changing the earth’s landscape irrevocably.  Beautiful though the cinematography is, it is not a pretty picture.

Now, Burtynsky co-directs with Baichwal, using high definition cinematography, frequently from the vantage point of helicopters and cranes, to focus on water, the essential ingredient of life. As with manufactured Landscapes, Watermark is mercifully devoid of sermons or excess verbiage, but it could do with a bit more context and a few titles or reminders of what we are watching.

The film begins with roaring torrents of black water so powerful that you shudder at the thought of being near them.  The film cuts to a thin, elderly Hispanic woman walking over the watermarks of a cracked, parched earth. ‘They drained the river… All the fish died….They said they would come back but they left and the water never returned.’ Cut back to the gushing water. We gradually perceive what looks like people standing on a bridge and later see that these are tourists snapping away at China’s controversial Xiaolangdi Dam.

China’s harnessing of its water (which, in the case of Xiaolangdi Dam, displaced millions of farmers and destroyed as many homes) appears to be less controversial in one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes. We are treated to a panoramic overhead view of Luoyuan Bay in Fuijan Province: the world’s largest abalone farm and a popular tourist attraction.  As far as the eye can see the calm bay is covered with floating abalone farms, a patchwork quilt of nets, pens and huts.

This extended passage illustrates the population’s dependence on the sea for their livelihood and sustenance. Since the film is non-judgmental and withholds editorialising, we do not know if these farms form a sustainable model to follow or whether there are ecological risks to ridding the sea bed of abalone predators and feeding them kelp.

From China to Texas and California, to Canada and to the Ganges River, we are shown how large-scale irrigation, water re-direction projects and general pollution has killed off wildlife and human communities and left large populations without water.  One of the most short-sighted and criminal examples is the Owens (dry) Lake. To cater to the growing population of California in 1913, water was diverted from the Owens River to Los Angeles, and by 1926 it was dry.

To add insult to injury, the wind that sweeps over the valley combined with the dry soil has created a perpetual fog of dust that requires sprays of yet more diverted water to dampen it.  The dust storms create severe respiratory problems amongst the population and cause millions of dollars in economic loss due to parks and businesses across a wide radius.

The film explains that an engineer named William Mr Mulholland (1855-1935) was the man responsible for the Los Angeles Aqueduct that moved water from Owens Lake to the San Fernando Valley to create a new agricultural area.  The filmmakers stop short of mentioning Roman Polanski’s 1974 Academy Award winning film Chinatown, which so famously dealt with that subject.

The filmmakers show how we depend on water, which forms 71% of the planet, not only for food and hydration, but for recreational, religious and social activities.  A father bathing a son in the Ganges, a surfing competition and girls doing cartwheels on the beach in slow motion punctuate the more industrialised passages.

Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer