The documentary “Watermark” is so stunning to behold that it seems like it belongs in a museum — and really, that might be a better place for it. The artistry of this collaboration between director Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky makes far more of an impact than its argument.
This is the pair’s second joint effort, after 2006’s “Manufactured Landscapes,” and similarly, it serves as a companion piece to the photographer’s work. Burtynsky is a master at capturing how humans and the natural world interact, and the results are photos, often aerial shots, that will make you do a double take and ponder our environmental devastation for days. He has captured oil refineries, tangles of intersecting highways, massive parking lots filled with cars, and huge, dilapidated plants in Detroit. Burtynsky has said that innovation is as important as environmentalism, but his photos, with all of their ugly manmade stuff, can feel like a punch to the gut.
“Watermark,” however, is more like a gentle slap on the wrist.
Burtynsky explores our relationship with water through the way we drink, dam, worship and rely on it, not to mention how we take it for granted. The opening shot literally challenges the way we see water: Captured in high definition and unfolding in slow-motion, a crashing wave of water looks more like a wall of smoke, both beautiful and terrifying. From there, we’re transported to China, where abalone farmers try to outsmart typhoons; Mexico, where the Colorado River has been replaced by parched earth; Greenland, where ice-hunting scientists try to make sense of the past; and Allahabad, India, a pilgrimage site where people congregate for a ritual river bath.
There are moments when the sight of water might elicit a visceral reaction, sometimes good, such as when carefree girls cartwheel and handspring along the beach, and sometimes bad, as when we travel to India where the sludge from leather factories floats downstream to a river where people bathe.
But with so much happening, the movie often feels unfocused and, worse, slow. Yes, it’s interesting to see the U.S. Open of Surfing, but like so much of the movie, it seems like an aesthetic choice rather than a meaningful one. Our time might be better spent with the Mexican woman who has lost access to the Colorado River.
It’s as if the movie’s many pieces are supposed to be like impressionistic brush strokes. When seen together, the result is pretty to look at. But it’s not as meaningful as it should be.
PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains smoking. In Mandarin, Bengali, Hindi, Spanish and English with subtitles. 92 minutes.