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