An environmental historian's review of Burtynsky and Baichwal's Watermark (2013)

The best thing about Watermark is how it conveys scale. Burtynsky moves between aerial photography, eye-level and close views, sometimes spiralling towards or away from a fixed point. I was fascinated to see that technique made visual. ‘Zooming in,’ is a common enough rhetorical device for historians who want to make the connections between local, regional and global changes. It was marvellous to see it, and see that it's as powerful on film as it is in print. These water tales matter because humans are intimately involved and because they really are a planet-sized Big Deal. This film draws a person in at several levels of meaning.

As a student of change over time, I noticed that the documentary didn't have a terribly coherent sense of sequence or pace. Most of the big changes being shown took place in the twentieth century, but it was hard to tell how quickly or abruptly they occurred. I would have loved to know more about the development of the abalone farms. The farmer interviewed there started to talk about how quickly the farms multiplied, contrasting the cost of heavier competition with the safety in numbers when storms came up, but I had no sense of whether this was a new problem or something he had seen emerge over the course of his lifetime. Perhaps it's just a restriction of the medium, since some kinds of time are expressed perfectly well; watching a Chinese dam go up and seeing its reservoir fill in stop-motion was the clearest progression in the film and it anchored the whole narrative.

The American images were especially stunning. I couldn't take my eyes off the ruler-straight irrigation canals through the desert. It was Donald Worster's classic Rivers of Empire in full sound and colour! I thought that California story – showing the links between the parched Colorado delta, the lucrative Imperial Valley and the sometimes violent politics of water control for cities and farms – was the most complete vignette. There were images of China that addressed similar themes, but there was greater depth and it easier to see how the pieces fit together in the California parts. It's marvellous to convey that in so few frames.

Sometimes I hear or read about people speculating on the ‘water wars’ and ‘blue gold,’ conflicts that could occur in the future. I don't think they realise that conflict over water is never a short, sharp outburst with evenly matched enemies and clear alliances, never a conventional war or even an armed conflict. Conflict over water is a slower, subtler grappling, and small, well-organised groups like of power utilities, city governments and agribusiness set the terms for the distracted masses of people who live with artificially cheap or badly polluted water. Direct interpersonal violence is quite beside the point - what's lost are quality of life, democratic decision-making, and richness of ecosystems.

My take on Watermark's California sequence is shaped by my reading about the state. California has such a deeper, richer environmental history than most places. One piece of history that would have added a lot to the film is origin of cheap water for agribusiness. Irrigation water is cheap in California because the state and federal governments were trying to help small family farms get established in the early 1900s. The low price was supposed to create a Jeffersonian paradise, where independent families working their own farms would become the bedrock of a democratic society. That ideal got lost as water laws and property regimes were bent in favour of big farming and real estate interests that still loom large in the state's politics. Still, I would like viewers to know that the vision of family gardens turned into agribusiness, because it shows laws can be twisted to serve such completely differentinterests. Unintended consequences can be so strange, and so damning. (No pun intended?)

As much as I want everyone to know what I know, I also think the choice to keep narration and explicit structure to a minimum is one of the best parts of the film. It leaves to much to the imagination. If I were teaching a seminar on water history (or any topic that allowed it to be shoehorned in), I would ask my students to diagram the film and explain how they thought the places, themes and people fit together… I have a feeling no two answers would be alike.

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