Festival Recap: “Watermark” Explores How Humans Shape Nature

Watermark at Media Rise
September 24, 2017 | 10:17 am by Karolle Rabarison

by Sharon Hartzell

On Wednesday, September 30, Media Rise screened the film Watermark at the Carnegie Institution for Science. The film, directed by Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky, features stunning imagery and global stories of how water shapes the human experience.

Watermark opens with a cascade of water, beautiful and imposing, pouring from the Xiaolangdi Dam in China, followed by a sharp cut to the cracked earth of the Colorado River Delta. This contrast of abundance and lack is emphasized throughout the film, as it explores our many uses of water and the consequences of depleting this resource. For the rice paddy guardians and abalone farmers of China, water is a form of economic sustenance.  For the scientists studying ice cores in Greenland, water is a way to measure a changing climate. In the tannery districts of Dhaka, water—flowing red, blue and black from chemical dye pollution—is poison, even as it is necessary to sustain life.

One of the most touching moments of the film occurs in Allahabad, India, at the Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage where 30 million people gather to bathe in the Ganges, relying on the power of the sacred river to cleanse them of their sins.

Watermark’s message of environmental conservation is strong but not forceful, inspiring awe to make its point.  In the film, scientist J.P. Steffensen remarks, “For the first time we are not just passive watchers of what nature does; we are responsible.”

Hannah Robinson, an audience member who works in environmental advocacy, commented on the film’s potential to change behaviors.

“The stunning photo and video content of the film emphasizes how delicate our natural world is,” she said. “As Watermark focused on a number of unique regions around the globe, I think it can definitely inspire people to think about how their everyday actions can affect both the environment and people in other places.”

Audience member Dianne Saenz said she especially loved the cinematography, shot in stunning 5k ultra high-definition video.

“Through the beauty of film and the beauty of nature, the film was able to make an artistic and aesthetic impression on you and feed a message of environmental sustainability through that,” she said.

The film closes with a meditation on water’s fundamental importance to the processes of life.

“One of the things I hadn’t really thought about was that all of life requires water – the actual act of cell division requires water,” audience member Scott Wilson said.

The spiritual and scientific messages of the film were united in this moment, leaving audience members with the understanding that with a break in the water link, life itself would end.

Watermark does not tell audiences what to do; it simply reminds us that in order to survive, we need water. This message, like the film’s striking visuals, are likely to stay with viewers for a long time.

This film was showcased as part of the Environmental Sustainability track of the 3rd annual Media Rise Festival, with support from the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development and Kimberly Williams, and co-organizers Peter O’Brien and Owen Davies.