Watermark by director Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky explores the relationship between humanity and water – how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

The film strikes a seamless balance between stunning visuals and fascinating documentary storytelling. It shifts just as easily from the grand scale to the minute, similar to Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka before it. One minute Watermark is showing images from the Xiluodo Dam in China (the world’s largest arch dam), the next of a young man – who calls himself a protector – moving twigs aside to make sure the open-stream water supply to his family’s rice paddies in Yunnan province receives its share of the trickle.

Filmed in ultra-high definition (using cameras such as the Red 5K), Watermark covers 20 stories across 10 countries. The film took more than three years to produce. Baichwal spent 11 months editing down 230 hours into the 90-minute feature. The film also coincides with Burtynsky’s latest photographic collection entitled simply, Water.

Baichwal and director of photography Nicholas de Pencier worked with renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky on Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary following him as he looked in detail at a number of huge industrial activities in China. For Watermark though, rather than have him as the subject or the narrator of the film, Baichwal explains it was a collaborative process between all three of them. “Some of the stories were pre-determined, but some presented themselves at the last minute, like the water-protecting young man, who we stumbled on while wading through the rice paddies, trying to set up the camera tripod in the shifting mud.”

What Watermark does so well is present the interactions between humans and water. It also tells very personal stories about ordinary people and their relationships with water.

Perhaps the best example of this is the depiction of Khumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage where 30 million people bathe together in the Ganges on the same day. “It was so amazing that millions of people were there together bathing, but each one was having a private moment,” Baichwal says.

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Naturally, by presenting 20 different stories about water and people, there is a strong ecological message. To Watermark’s credit, though, the film doesn’t ram it down the viewer’s throat. Baichwal leaves the audience alone to come to his or her own conclusion with the pensive, aesthetic space the film creates.

Watermark is showing at ACMI from July 5–13.