Tap­ping into a pow­er­ful topic

T.O.’s Ed­ward Bur­tyn­sky & Jen­nifer Baich­wal bring their thought-pro­vok­ing movie ‘Water­mark’ to film fes­ti­val

Richmond Hill Post - - Arts Profile - By Kiva Rear­don

In Toronto’s east end, the Queen Street viaduct has car­ried street­cars, cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans over the Don River since 1911. Daily, count­less peo­ple cross the river, but with the pass­ing of time, the wa­ter­way has blended into the fab­ric of the city — an un­re­mark­able land­mark.

Rarely, then, do we pause to con­tem­plate this nat­u­ral for­ma­tion, which dates back thou­sands of years. This am­biva­lence to­ward the river isn’t unique to the Don, but speaks to the way in which hu­mans of­ten for­get that our lives are shaped by wa­ter. ( Just think of our own city’s bor­ders: the said Don River mark­ing en­try into the east end, to the Hum­ber River defin­ing our west­erly lim­its and to the south the vast Lake On­tario and our ne­glected water­front.)

It is this very ques­tion of the in­ter­sec­tion of peo­ple and wa­ter that is the ba­sis of the lat­est col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween ac­claimed Toronto pho­tog­ra­pher Ed­ward Bur­tyn­sky and Montreal di­rec­tor Jen­nifer Baich­wal, Water­mark, which is set to have its world pre­miere at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

Bur­tyn­sky has strong con­nec­tions to this city, where he be­gan and forged his ca­reer.

Af­ter study­ing at Ry­er­son, he rec­og­nized the need for a new kind of artis­tic space and in 1985 founded Toronto Image Works. Part gallery, part photo lab, part train­ing fa­cil­ity, TIW has evolved into an es­sen­tial mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary stu­dio for the city’s arts com­mu­nity.

Bur­tyn­sky gar­nered ac­claim for his pho­to­graphs show­ing the in­ter­sec­tion of land­scape and in­dus­try.

Bur­tyn­sky and Baich­wal first came to­gether in 2006 to cre­ate Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes, a doc­u­men­tary por­trait of both Bur­tyn­sky’s pho­to­graphs and his artis­tic process.

Pre­mier­ing at TIFF that year, the film was met with crit­i­cal praise in­ter­na­tion­ally, be­ing that rare kind of doc­u­men­tary that while po­lit­i­cally loaded — Bur­tyn­sky’s fo­cus was on oil — re­fuses di­dac­ti­cism.

As Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes had the dif­fi­cult task of trans­lat­ing the still medium of pho­tog­ra­phy to mov­ing im­ages, the film’s suc­cess is a tes­ta­ment to the strength of the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the two — some­thing both Bur­tyn­sky and Baich­wal rec­og­nize as well.

Speaking with the pho­tog­ra­pher over the phone in Toronto, he says: “Soon af­ter that film hap­pened, we started talk­ing about co-di­rect­ing. It just took us un­til now to get there.”

And so, seven years on, two of Canada’s great artists have come to­gether again, though this time the dy­nam­ics have changed.

For the first time, Bur­tyn­sky has taken on a di­rec­to­rial role, shar­ing the credit with Baich­wal, which she de­scribes strengths.”

In­deed, speaking with them separately only af­firmed this, as in­di­vid­u­ally they gen­er­ously praise the other’s fortes.

Baich­wal speaks of Bur­tyn­sky’s “great ca­pac­ity to see the wide view and to find a way of con­vey­ing scale.”

The pho­tog­ra­pher, on the other hand, ad­mits this large-scale think­ing has its lim­its, say­ing, “The film would suf­fer if it was just in that macro world, never en­ter­ing the hu­man di­men­sion.”

He cred­its the mi­cro as­pect to Baich­wal, who re­searched and evoca­tively cap­tured the peo­ple who give a hu­man face to the wa­tery tale.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Water­mark bears the­matic sim­i­lar­i­ties to their pre­vi­ous col­lab­o­ra­tion, but the fo­cus has moved away from Bur­tyn­sky to wa­ter it­self.

“Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes was about try­ing to in­tel­li­gently trans­late the mean­ing of Ed’s pho­to­graphs into film,” says Baich­wal.

“In this case, we started out at the same time — we didn’t have to trans­late, we were do­ing it to­gether,” she says.

Travers­ing the globe from Canada to Bangladesh and in­ter­weav­ing 20 sto­ries, the film could be de­scribed as slow. Yet it seems more apt to call Water­mark force­fully pa­tient, as the film makes the viewer con­front the tit­u­lar el­e­ment, us­ing long takes of pound­ing wa­ters at the Xilu­odo


“a mar­riage

of Dam or sweep­ing shots of the dried-up Colorado River Delta.

Over­all, the film takes on a cycli­cal struc­ture, eas­ily flow­ing be­tween seem­ingly dis­parate lo­cales. For in­stance, in one cut, we’re taken from the rit­ual bathing at the Ganges, where wa­ter is a spir­i­tual source, to a Hunt­ing­ton Beach surf­ing com­pe­ti­tion, where hu­mans bat­tle to master the ocean’s waves.

De­spite their dif­fer­ence, as the cam­era lingers on the scenes, the shared na­ture of wa­ter be­comes clear, con­vey­ing a mov­ing sense of con­nec­tiv­ity.

The ques­tion of pol­i­tics nat­u­rally comes up when talk­ing about wa­ter, but when asked di­rectly about this, nei­ther codi­rec­tor gives a clear an­swer.

“At the end of the day,” says Bur­tyn­sky, “I’m step­ping back from the po­lit­i­cal and look­ing at our re­la­tion­ship with things.”

Sim­i­larly, Baich­wal wants

to “cre­ate a di­a­logue with a viewer,” not­ing that af­ter the film, “You may not think of wa­ter the same way or treat it with the same non­cha­lance as you did be­fore.”

Water­mark achieves this ope­nended form of dis­course, as the film em­pha­sizes visual sto­ry­telling over nar­ra­tion, cre­at­ing mean­ing through jux­ta­po­si­tions of im­ages.

With more than 199 hours of raw footage and no script, that this was ac­com­plished was no small feat (the film took a year to edit).

But this method was cru­cial to Water­mark’s anti-mor­al­iz­ing tone. As Baich­wal ex­plains: “Some [doc­u­men­taries] be­gin with a script, but I’ve al­ways found that to be a re­duc­tive process, as you can’t pre­dict what re­al­ity is.”

Re­turn­ing to the Queen viaduct, in the wrought iron struc­ture that sup­ports the bridge, there is a pub­lic art in­stal­la­tion by El­don Gar­net that reads: “This River I Step in Is Not the River I Stand In.” The text arches above a clock, a gen­tle re­minder to slow down and re­flect upon the wa­ter be­neath, which usu­ally goes un­heeded.

Cross­ing the bridge af­ter see­ing Water­mark, how­ever, you might be com­pelled to take a mo­ment to look down at the river and con­tem­plate its slow-mov­ing jour­ney.

In con­junc­tion with the film Water­mark is Bur­tyn­sky’s pho­to­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion as well as a book, Bur­tyn­sky: Wa­ter. The ex­hi­bi­tion will pre­miere at Toronto’s Ni­cholas Me­tivier Gallery and run Sept. 5 to Oct. 12.

Bur­tyn­sky’s per­spec­tive shifts

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