Exploring the world of water

by Daniel McCabe, BA'89

The last time Jennifer Baichwal, BA’90, MA’96, worked with renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky on a film project – the much praised Manufactured Landscapes in 2006 – the resulting movie was named Canada’s best film of the year by the Toronto Film Critics Association. “We went out for a great dinner with a big group of movie critics after the ceremony,” Baichwal recalls.

Baichwal and Burtynsky’s latest collaboration, Watermark, recently earned the same honour – but the payoff was much more lucrative this time around. The nod from the TFCA now results in the winner receiving the $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award, the richest arts prize in the country. TFCA president Brian D. Johnson, the film critic for Maclean’s, calls the movie “an epic portrait of our planet’s lifeblood.”

The award caught Baichwal off guard. As a previous winner, she thought her chances were slim. Plus, the prize had gone to another documentary just last year – Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. Though she knew that Watermark was in the running, “I thought we were just kind of along for the ride this year,” says Baichwal. There may be more prizes in the near-future. Watermark is a nominee for best feature documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards.

Filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (Photo: Jim Panou)

One of Canada’s most successful documentary filmmakers – her previous awards include an International Emmy and a Gemini – Baichwal doesn’t believe in using her movies as a bully pulpit. “I resist that greatly,” she says. “I don’t believe in hitting audiences over the head or in telling them what they should think about something. Movies that come at you in a very didactic way leave you with only two choices – agree or don’t agree – and that doesn’t leave any room for creating dialogue.”

That isn’t to say that Baichwal doesn’t have a definite point of view. Her environmental concerns are evident in Watermark, which raises troubling questions about the way in which we’ve managed the world’s water resources. Stark images of a parched and cracked wasteland in Mexico where the Colorado River once flowed, for instance, speak volumes about the troubling legacy of past water diversion projects.

Burtynsky, whose jarring and surreal photographs of large-scale landscapes form part of the collections of more than 50 museums, shares Baichwal’s approach. Like Baichwal, Burtynsky prefers raising questions over answering them. “It’s one of the reasons we struck a chord with Ed and vice versa,” she says.

At one point, Watermark visits the massive construction site of China’s Xiuodo Dam, a project six times the size of the Hoover Dam. It’s hard not to be impressed by its ambitious scale or by the sheer human resourcefulness behind it. But it’s also difficult not to feel apprehensive about what the unintended consequences of the dam might prove to be.

“That’s precisely where the ambiguity lies,” says Baichwal. “In the case of the dam, you can draw your own conclusions. Is this something dark and sinister or do hydro projects offer one of the cleanest forms of power around, especially in a country that has so many coal plants? There’s no easy answer.”

Baichwal believes her approach to filmmaking “comes very much from my academic background.” She did an honours’ degree at McGill in philosophy and religious studies and then a master’s at the University in religious studies. “I had a somewhat disastrous first attempt at university, but when I came back as a mature student, I was quite focused,” Baichwal says. “I was on the road to doing a PhD.”

But she decided that film offered “maybe a more flexible context to explore the sorts of questions I was interested in.” The possibility of reaching larger audiences held appeal too.

Her years at McGill paid another important dividend. Baichwal befriended future CBC host Evan Solomon, BA’90, MA’92 – “we were the only master’s students in religious studies at the time” – who introduced her to Nick de Pencier, an English and art history student who would leave McGill a few credits shy of earning a degree. Today, de Pencier is Baichwal’s co-producer, her director of photography and her husband.

With Manufactured Landscapes, Burtynsky and his work were largely the subjects of the film. With Watermark, he and Baichwal are full partners and co-directors. “Ed has always been interested in film and Manufactured Landscapes made him even more interested,” says Baichwal. “We’d been looking for another project to do together and when Ed started talking about focusing on water [apart from the film, Burtynsky has also produced a recent book and a series of photo exhibitions], I knew that was it.

“Ed is very concerned about finding the epic view,” Baichwal says of her collaboration with Burtynsky. “He has a genius for knowing where to position himself to get access to that unique perspective. It’s not always obvious.” Baichwal and de Pencier focused their attention elsewhere. “Nick and I looked for ways to root the existential dilemmas [explored in the film] in the experiences of real people.”

Watermark spends time in 10 different countries, exploring everything from a scientific expedition in Finland examining centuries-old ice for clues about climate change, to the polluted water created by tanning factories in Pakistan producing goods for Western countries.

Some of the most vivid images come from scenes shot in China – not just at the gargantuan dam projects, but also in rice paddies and fishing communities. Manufactured Landscapes was largely set in China too, but Baichwal says the more recent film was a far cry from what she and her team experienced there before.

“With Manufactured Landscapes, we had a minder following us around all the time, watching everything we’d do. This time, our minder was a 22-year-old who spent most of his time in the hotel room on his iPhone. We were able to talk to people. They even gave us carte blanche at the Three Gorges Dam. The only challenge was aerial shooting – you can’t get access to air space over there.” The solution was to use remote helicopters to shoot scenes from the sky.

The movie ends on a grace note, a sweeping aerial shot of the beautiful Stikine River in northern British Columbia. Finishing the film with a Canadian body of water was likely no accident.

“We live in a country with so much water, it’s easy to take it for granted,” says Baichwal. “In Dhaka, we saw people bathing in the most toxic water possible with the effluents from the tanning factories. Once you experience some of these places, it makes you grateful for what we have here. It makes you think twice every time you turn on the tap."

Watermark will be released on DVD on February 25 and will be available for online downloads during the third week of February.