Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky make gorgeous warnings. Their last documentary collaboration, 2006’s jaw-dropping “Manufactured Landscapes,” combined Baichwal’s inexorable camera moves and Burtynsky’s eye for environmentally degraded industrial vistas to jolt audiences out of their complacency. It was as if an alien were hovering over a planet, our planet, on the verge of ruin.
“Watermark” opens with a similar sense of disaster disguised as beauty: a slow-motion shot of what appear to be river rapids, water jetting up and out in majestic sprays. Very artful. Only later in the film do we learn that we’re seeing the silt release from the massive Xiaolangdi Dam in China. Before that, we’ve visited the parched, cracked desert in Mexico where the Colorado River used to be.
“How does water shape us and how do we shape water?” That’s the stated task of “Watermark” as expressed by Burtynsky, a renowned still photographer who this time takes a codirecting credit with Baichwal. As in “Manufactured Landscapes,” the new film hopscotches the globe to look at the fluid border between humanity and its most precious commodity. The Oglala Aquifer in the Great Plains is the size of nine Lake Eries and local agriculture has already used up two or three of them. At Oglala and in California’s Imperial Valley, we see the contrast between well-irrigated green and water-starved brown.
In the tannery district of Dhaka, Bangladesh, leather goods bound for Europe and America are treated with chemical water baths that outflow as sludge into the Buriganga River. We fly over vast abalone farms in the East China Sea, tour the Stikine River watershed in northern British Columbia, veer over to the 12th-century stepwells of Rajasthan and the 21st-century Bellagio Fountains of Las Vegas. We head up to the Greenland Ice Sheet as scientists analyze ice core samples from the Eemian period, the last interglacial period before ours. It’s noted that interglacial periods tend to be quite brief.
Biachwal and Burtynsky prefer to show rather than tell, although “Watermark” does a fair amount of the latter as well. When one of the scientists says, “We are not just passive watchers of what nature does — we are responsible,” that’s as direct as the movie gets. For all that, “Watermark” feels less focused than “Manufactured Landscapes.” While it presents us with awful and/or awe-inspiring images and ideas, the movie lacks the tightening grip that made the earlier work so unforgettable.
These exceptionally gifted filmmakers are simply best at the long view of the human species and its impact. This they present in moods celebratory (the tri-annual Kumbh Mela, when 100 million Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river), dire (a scientist examines the ice core record of climate shift and marvels, “It takes so little to make it flip”), and ultimately emotionless. This is what we are doing to our home, “Watermark” wordlessly informs us. What do you think we can do about it?