A subtle but profound change has come over the environmental sub-category of “outrage docs” lately. Where most previous enviro documentaries used scare tactics and a barrage of woeful statistics to warn us about, say, global warming or poison in our seafood, the new breed of eco-docs — typified by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark — creep into our consciousness.
Watermark at times seems like travelogue — one that’s devoted to making us think about water and how we use it. In Bangladesh, for instance, the production of leather jackets and handbags in an extremely low-tech tannery involves a constant stream of water. The same is true at the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas. Burtynsky’s camera visits the Stikine River Watershed in British Columbia, the Step Wells of Rajasthan, and the rice paddies and abalone farms of China — all beautiful and impressive, and each one dependent on an endangered natural resource. No glaring message, in fact no narration, just gorgeous 5K ultra-high-def images of the sites, sprinkled with the thoughts of a few talking heads, like the woman in the dried-up Colorado River delta in Mexico who remembers when it was green farmland.
It’s almost as if Baichwal and Burtynsky (they made the eerily beautiful study of Chinese mega-factories, Manufactured Landscapes) are taking pictures of water-filled places and pursuits for a future scrapbook of how the Earth used to be, when we had water to spare. In spots like the Lower Colorado and Lone Pine, California, where a new Dust Bowl is growing, the future has already arrived.
But in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India, concepts like past and future blend, and lose their most obvious meaning. During the Kumbh Mela religious pilgrimage in 2013 (photographed by Burtynsky and his crew), the largest peaceful assembly in the world, tens of millions of Hindu devotees gathered to bathe in the Saraswati River, just as they have always done, dreaming of Lord Vishnu, the ocean of milk, and the healing powers of a river as old as time. Will the water always be there, or is it just an illusion, meant to pass away into dust? Drink in this marvel of a documentary, then come to your own conclusion.