Xiluodu Dam, on China's Jinsha River.c Edward Burtynsky

Xiluodu Dam, on China's Jinsha River.c Edward Burtynsky

Watermark Opens Fri., May 2 at Varsity. Rated PG. 91 minutes. Few


Opens Fri., May 2 at Varsity. 
Rated PG. 91 minutes.

Few of us here in the damp Pacific Northwest have cause to worry about water. Acclaimed Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, again collaborating with filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (as in 2007’s Manufactured Landscapes), wants you to feel differently about that fluid. Burtynsky specializes in oversized panoramas of environmental blight. There is both horror and beauty to his images of planetary damage, plenty of which is on view here. A Bangladeshi tannery pumps toxic red sludge into the drinking water. Chinese dams disgorge brown undulating torrents of sediment. Indian step wells run dry, leaving a yawning M.C. Escher void. The once-verdant circles of Texas pivot-irrigation farms revert to desert as the groundwater subsides. Would we expect anything less, anything merely pretty or encouraging?

Like the photographs of crumbling Detroit, there’s a disaster-porn aesthetic here, which I wouldn’t mind if it were presented straight. The scientists drilling ice cores in Greenland I can take. “We are responsible,” says one researcher of global warming, and that’s hard to argue. But to this Watermark must add New Age flourishes. In glaciated British Columbia, a Native American solemnly pronounces, “We’re all water.” At the Kumbh Mela festival on the Ganges, some 30 million pilgrims convene to be cleansed in the shit- and corpse-contaminated river. This is confusing: Is water sacred or a cosmic toilet-flush?

Burtynsky adores yet gently deplores the perverse, unnatural patterns of agriculture and industry laid upon the Earth. These manmade impositions—including a floating Chinese colony of abalone farmers, arranged in grids like city blocks—are often photographed on high, from God’s-eye cameras controlled by drones. And if mankind’s ravaging of nature isn’t obvious enough, Baichwal underlines it twice. Yet nowhere in Watermark do you feel lectured; it’s more chiding than hectoring, a polite Canadian paraphrase of An Inconvenient Truth.


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