Watermark director Jennifer Baichwal.

Oak Bay filmmaker debuts watershed moment

Watermark documentary opens at Odeon Theatre October 11

Watermark, a documentary showing how humans interact and alter water around the world, is the latest film by Oak Bay-raised documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal.

The film, which opens today (Oct. 11), reunites Baichwal with photographer Edward Burtynsky. The two last worked together on Baichwal’s 2006 award-winning film, Manufactured Landscapes. That film won a Genie award and best Canadian Film at the Toronto Film Festival, along with a few other awards in the United States. Watermark is a collection of 20 stories about water, shot in 10 countries.

Much of the stunning visuals were shot on 5K high definition video to complement Burtynsky’s 60 megapixel stills, giving a vivid and spectacular ground and aerial perspective to viewers. Hundreds of streams intersecting a major river, shot from the air, looks like arteries and veins in the human body. The vast wilderness of B.C.’s Stikine region, the powerful waves near one of the largest dams in the world located in China; and the sight of 30 million people gathering for a sacred bath in the Ganges, are all breathtaking to say the least.

“There is something very cinematic about water,” Baichwal said. “It’s very hard to convey water and the scale of water unless you are up in the air.”

Helicopters and remote controlled helicopters were used extensively for filming, however they proved difficult to use in China. To show the expanse of constructing China’s Xiluodu dam – the largest arch dam in the world – six times larger than the Hoover dam, a camera was placed on a lift, and “with a prayer,” transported via cable across the construction site.

“It was terrifying because a failure or a fall would have seriously injured someone below and we would have lost a $100,000 camera,” she said. “We took a lot of risks.”

Baichwal intentionally set out to produce a non-traditional documentary, explaining the standard format is to use numerous experts to hammer at viewers a particular point of view. Instead, she relied heavily on visuals, such as showing a fishing boat abandoned in what looks like a desert, but is actually the dried up Colorado River delta in Mexico. Another disturbing visual is streams of toxic runoff from a leather tanning factory in Bangladesh, emptying into open water where people are bathing and drinking.

“You’re preaching to the converted,” Baichwal said, explaining most people have at least a vague idea of an issue before watching a documentary. “Ambiguity is the strength. You’re not sure what you’re looking at sometimes.”

Almost 200 hours of raw footage filmed in 10 countries and 75 hours of archive material were used to make the film, which took five years to complete.

Watermark premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and opened at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Oct. 10, a day before the Victoria screening at the Odeon Theatre. Baichwal is looking forward to returning home for the Victoria opening. She will participate in a question and answer session following the 6:50 p.m. show on Saturday, Oct. 12.

“My family still live in Oak Bay,” Baichwal said, fondly reminiscing about going to the Oak Bay Theatre when she was young. “I spent so much time going there to watch movies. I still have such deep nostalgia.”

The mother of two is married to Nick de Pencier, who is also the producer and cinematographer of Watermark. The couple visit here often and spend a month each summer in Oak Bay.

She longs to return permanently, but work and children keep her in Toronto.

“I miss the ocean, I miss everything about the West Coast,” Baichwal said. “I talk about (moving back) all the time with (Canadian filmmaker) Atom Egoyan. Our families live in the same neighbourhood and we always run into each other over there.”

Once done promoting this film, she plans to take a short sabbatical from work to spend time with her kids before taking on a new project.

Baichwal has been directing and producing films for 20 years.

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