“Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” – Chinatown
Countless documentaries are released into theaters every year, the majority of which are info dumps that take the talking-head structure as a given. There's rarely much thought given to form, which is sometimes fine – not every movie needs to be like Leviathan.
But form takes precedence in Watermark, a documentary about the global implications of how we use water. In giving a global perspective on the issue without imposing any one view on the audience, the film allows viewers to bring their own foreknowledge into play and draw any number of conclusions. For Angelenos, these conclusions may be somewhat dire.]
Some of the most striking imagery consists of aerial shots of the desert, water coursing like branches of some ancient tree. Seeing this is not unlike the final descent into LAX after a long trip out of state – you remember that we live in the middle of a desert and that something we take for granted countless times a day might one day evaporate. Southern California could hardly be called the primary focus of Watermark, but shots of Discovery Bay, the All-American Canal and Owens Lake show that the Golden State factors into co-directors Jennifer Baichwal's and Edward Burtynsky's exploration of the foundational question on which Watermark rests: “How does water shape us, and how do we shape water?”
Asked about this connection, Burtynsky says that, “When water is redirected there's always a winner and always a loser. Owens Lake is a case and point.” He's referring to the fact that the lake, now all but gone, was thriving until the Los Angeles Aqueduct subsumed the Owens River. The lake hasn't held much water for 90 years and now causes more dust pollution than anything else in the country. “The extreme drought that California is currently facing is putting the state in a Sophie's Choice position. When the sacrifices are made it will either be the fish in the Sacramento Delta, the farmers, or the cities. There's not enough for everybody.” Whether this leads to a change in policy or even individual behavior remains to be seen.
Late in Watermark, a shot of Kumbh Mela – a Hindu pilgrimage in which as many as 100 million people trek to sacred rivers – fades into one of the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach. From afar, the religious ritual doesn't look entirely different from an athletic spectacle. It's an arresting image, and though the connection may be tenuous it makes for a thought-provoking juxtaposition nevertheless.
Leaps in logic are part of what make Watermark a rewarding experience; its focus on something that unites every person on the planet allows viewers to look at it through their own lens, with one being as valid as the next.
So it's fitting that, when I ask the Toronto-based Baichwal what she thought of how and why we're particularly drawn to water in Los Angeles, her answer is more expansive than site-specific.
“The Colorado River Delta was a surreal lunar landscape that used to be a thriving wetland,” she says over email. “We witnessed it from the air and on the ground. Everyone in North America is connected to water from the Colorado river because of agriculture. So when I buy baby lettuce in Toronto in the middle of winter, I'm partaking of that water. The fact that it doesn't need much to rejuvenate these parched landscapes [1%] is a reason for hope.”
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