Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Systematic abuse of water leaves its mark on planet

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Devout Hindus gather to bathe where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet.

EDWARD BURTYNSKY / MONGREL MEDIA Enlarge Image

Devout Hindus gather to bathe where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet.

YOU might say Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky's documentary Watermark is a relationship movie.

It is about the relationship between people and water.

Sometimes, the relationship is one of curiosity, as with a group of scientists drilling through millennia worth of Arctic ice to study ancient water samples. Sometimes it is spiritual, as when hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus converge in Allahabad, India, to bathe in the convergence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.

It can be playful. Witness the maintenance and operation of the fountains at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

It can be nurturing. The site of intricately constructed rice paddies in China may not be entirely natural, but it is kind of gorgeous and harmonious... except for the sight of a teen "guardian" roaming its perimeters while talking on a cellphone.

Alas, more often, the relationship is bullying. Much of this film takes place at the site of China's awesome Xiluodu dam on the Yangtze River. It's six times the size of the Hoover Dam. Baichwal and Burtynsky got amazing access to the dam's construction, considering the terrifying implications of its gigantic structure. As a technological achievement, it feels about as benign as the Death Star.

Early on, the filmmakers establish good reason to fear how humans so arrogantly alter natural bodies of water for their own purposes. The Colorado River, once majestic, has had its waters exploited to the extent its most southernmost river beds resemble the exsanguinated circulatory system of a corpse.

But Baichwal and Burtynsky, who collaborated on Manufactured Landscapes, never proselytize. There is no on-screen narration spewing out statistics and dire warnings. They go in assuming we should be able to draw our own conclusions with regards to our multi-faceted relationship with bodies of water.

That said, one should be left with a sense of mounting unease, especially when the relationship turns abusive. In Bangladesh, we are privy to distressing images from a tannery, which employs dangerous chemicals in processing leather products bound for western shoe and clothing manufacturers. These chemicals are dumped into the river, the same river, where we see a father wash his infant's face upstream.

Words are not needed to make the case our relationship with water is one of betrayed legacy.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2013 D3

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Updated on Friday, October 25, 2013 at 10:14 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Burtynsky, replaces photo

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