Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"The final collaboration is between the finished film and its audience": Jennifer Baichwal and Ed Burtynsky on Watermark

Xiaolangdi Dam #1, Yellow River, 
Henan Province, China 2011. ©Edward Burtynsky

We fade-in on what I can only describe as hurtling meteors of water, deep earth-brown, white and opal, thunderous, not cascading but raging with such primal force as though giving birth to a planet. Then cut to tiles of cracked earth, the very absence of moisture, and an old woman whose face and voice seem to echo the desert floor. She speaks of a time when there was a river and fish in this place, before the government took the water away, rerouting it and leaving perpetual drought behind. This is the stuff of Chinatown, corruption, neglect, the commandeering of resources, though what I can’t get out of my head after seeing the opening scenes of Watermark is a Talking Heads song, their most popular: Water dissolving and water removing/ There is water at the bottom of the ocean/ Remove the water, carry the water…

Rice Terraces #2, Western Yunnan Province, 
China 2012. ©Edward Burtynsky

Water is this film’s fathomless subject. It’s more than a lazy metaphor to call the experience of seeing and hearing Watermark immersive. Co-directed by prolific filmmaker Jennifer Bacihwal and renown photographer Edward Burtynsky—whose work was the subject of Baichwal’s widely lauded Manufactured Landscapes—the film picks you up and sweeps you away, to 1,700-year-old Yunnan rice paddies; to kids performing cartwheels on Huntington Beach; to 30-million pilgrims bathing their sins away in the Ganges; to the Ogallala Aquifer and its land art for the viewing pleasure of gods and pilots; to the to a Bangladeshi tannery’s toxic runoff, which leads to a river where women bathe; to a subterranean industrial vampire city in China; to a boat stranded in the middle of a vast desert. The cinematography, courtesy of Baichwal’s producer, husband and regular shooter Nick de Pencier, alternates between stunning and exquisitely lulling—I could happily drift off to dreamland every night watching and listening to Watermark’s final river-run. But the film is also brimming with urgent stories of what’s happening to the water we depend on for survival.

Kumbh Mela #1, Haridwar, India, 2010. 
©Edward Burtynsky

There’s an interesting tension between the medium Burtynsky typically works in versus that of Baichwal.  Still photography renders water almost as sculpture, a surfaced thing, something frozen in time. Whereas in movies water becomes a force of emotion, drama, movement. (I think immediately of Wild River, or, from last year, Leviathan, The Deep or All is Lost.) Burtynsky, whose 30-year career has surveyed the myriad ways mankind has manipulated the earth and its resources, was already well into his Water book project when he and Baichwal decided to make this film together, which offers fascinating contrasts between still and moving images. Theirs is a collaboration founded on looking at the same subject through complimentary yet distinct lenses. I spoke with Baichwal and Burtynsky in September, on the morning following Watermark’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film has since received a number of honours, including placement in Canada's Top Ten. Just last night, Baichwal and Burtynsky were given the award for Best Canadian Film by the Toronto Film Critics Association at their surprisingly rockin' annual gala. 

Baichwal and Burtynsky

JB: In Manufactured Landscapes Ed was, in a sense, the film’s subject or its inspiration, whereas Watermark credits you two equally as co-directors. How did you two divide the workload?

Jennifer Baichwal: Ed had a head start—he was working on Water for two years before we got together. Once we were making a film we continued to location scout as a team. And once we found our locations we agreed that things had to be rooted. That meant finding people. So on some days Ed might be sorting out that one big money-shot of the dam while Nick and I would follow the workers home for lunch. I felt we needed those daily life details to root the aerial shots or we would have floated away. Sometimes we all worked on the broader pictures together and sometimes we didn’t. It was very organic in that respect. Then in the editing room it became a very day-to-day collaboration between [editor] Roland [Schlimme] and I. Then Ed and Nick would come in for screenings of the various assemblies and we would discuss. In a nutshell, Ed did a lot of the heavy lifting at the beginning and I did it at the end.

JB: I read the piece in The Globe & Mail this morning and it struck me as funny, how it would describe certain moments in Watermark as obviously bearing the Burtynsky signature, while for me those exact same moments feel entirely in keeping with your work, Jennifer. All of which, I suppose, functions as a testament to the harmony of your collaboration.

JBa: I suspect one of the reasons why we came together in the first place is because we have similar perspectives.

Edward Burtynsky: And neither of us has oversized egos. There was no need to enforce a calm discussion as to how we were going to work. It came easily.

JB: I spend time in Mexico City, where water is a valuable commodity and only rich or stupid people can think of it as something that doesn’t need to be rationed. But there’s something about being surrounded by water that makes it hard for many ostensibly ecologically conscious Canadians to reconcile themselves to the fact that it may very soon be scarce. Something I love about the opening of Watermark is the way it offers you these incredible images of deluge and follows them with images of drought. That contrast plants a useful seed in the viewers’ minds, I think.

JBa: From the very beginning we talked about illumination through juxtaposition. On one level those two places depicted in the opening have nothing to do with each other, but on another they’re directly related because it’s all about control of water. The Colorado River Delta is the result of control. These kinds of juxtapositions became our version of narrative.

Colorado River Delta #2, 
Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico 2011. ©Edward Burtynsky

EB: Abundance versus scarcity, East versus West, pristine versus tainted—meaning can be coaxed out of contrast. In one place water is contaminated and placed in a sewage ditch. In another we have Oscar Dennis talk about how water is integrated into a First Nations view of the cycle of life. And it’s not that we’re wagging a finger at those working in the Bangladeshi leather tannery—they’re making those shoes for us. We’ve just managed to export most of our nastiest industries to the developing world.

JB: When writing about Watermark I find myself avoiding the word documentary. Not because it doesn’t fulfill the requirements of the form in many regards, but because certain viewers equate documentary with activist or didactic films. I keep bumping up against this insistence that everything be clearly spelled out, as though viewers play no critical role.

JBa: We keep bumping up against that too. To be sure, in Watermark there are hard facts that are interesting and pertinent, things you need to know to contextualize what you’re looking at. For example, Owens Lake is the largest source of dust pollution in the U.S. I didn’t know that when we were filming there. That information gives you an important tool—it doesn’t, however, tell you what to think. I don’t know how often I’ve had to make the argument that the documentary form doesn’t need to be defined by journalistic criteria. It’s a question about truth. Just watch the news. I mean, who in their right mind thinks that everything on the news is true?

EB: I think our work falls somewhere on the spectrum between what, say, Al Gore or, in a more exaggerated way, Michael Moore do, which is to barrage you with damning facts, and something like Samsara, which is entirely non-verbal filmmaking in which the visuals carry the freight. I like the idea of a film functioning like a showing of my work, where the viewer has to complete the meaning. The more you bring to furthering your understanding of what’s in the picture, the more you bring to the picture itself. Last night we had dinner with various people who had attended the premiere and I was enjoying listening to the comments. Everyone seems to have a different idea as to what the film is about. Really, the final collaboration is between the finished film and its audience. 

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