Manufactured Landscapes filmmakers discuss new aqua epic Watermark

On paper a documentary that focuses primarily on the subject of water may not immediately rouse your interest. Then again Watermark wasn’t directed by your average pair of filmmakers.

A collaboration between veteran documentary director Jennifer Baichwal ( Payback Act of God ) and one of Canada’s most renowned photographers Edward Burtynsky Watermark is a thoughtful gorgeously filmed non-narrative that explores the environmental impact and human relationship with the world’s most overlooked natural resource.

“There are a lot of environmental films that have arguments to advance and they do that very well but they have a very traditional format that I’m less drawn to” says Baichwal during a sit-down interview in advance of the movie’s screening at CIFF (and its wider theatrical release on October 11). “I think one of the reasons that I’ve always kind of married art and environmental issues is [that] the aesthetic is as important as the thematic because film is a visual medium. If you can’t find a way of conveying something that has visual power it feels to me that maybe you should write a book about it [instead].”

Back in 2006 Baichwal met Burtynsky when she followed the talented shutterbug around China as he took some of the most striking pictures of gloomy factories and industrial ugliness you’ll ever set eyes upon. The result turned into the acclaimed film Manufactured Landscapes and earned the director several awards including a Genie for top documentary.

“We always wanted to work together again and Ed was very intrigued by film and I think after Manufactured Landscapes he thought he wanted to be more involved from the beginning” says Baichwal of her subject-turned-co-director. She admits a few other projects were tossed around in the intervening years but it wasn’t until Burtynsky was asked to create a photographic essay on the water crisis in California for National Geographic that the duo drummed up the idea for Watermark .

“[When we saw] the first photographs from the shoot he did for National Geographic we sort of looked at each other and said ‘well there couldn’t be anything with a bigger scale than this’ and scale is kind of our thing” says Baichwal. “It was the cinematic possibilities of water in all its different incarnations [that] came immediately to the fore and so that sort of sealed it and we started working on it from that moment.”

The project still took five years to develop as the pair began to plan a trip through no less than 10 countries to investigate and film such stunningly diverse subjects as a polluting tannery in Bangladesh the construction of the colossal Xiluodu dam in China and an ice core research lab in Greenland that aims to uncover the history of water.

“It takes a lot of research up front [to make a film like this] but then when we get to a location it really is just about being in that place and trying to experience it in an authentic way and trying to convey that authentic experience to the viewer” says Baichwal who eventually had to whittle down over 200 hours of footage. “[Our films are] about being immersed in a subject; they’re more philosophically based so we thought about this theme of water and how humans have interacted with [and] shaped water and long for water — there’s this sort of primal relationship there — and then tried to find as many existential moments that showed that as we could.”