Water you waiting for? Global documentary looks into, around and under the wet stuff.
Directed by Victor Kossakovsky
Water. It’s something so basic that we humans don’t really think about it very often—at least until we’re living in Flint, Mich. and our water supply is tainted or we buy a house on the Florida coast and find ourselves staring down a Category 5 hurricane. Then, we remember water is an element, fundamental to life on Earth and possessing a power far greater than we are forced to reckon with on a daily basis.
Aquarela, the new documentary from Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky (Russia From My Window, !Vivan las Antipodas!), focuses on water in its various Earthly forms—frequently frozen and immobile, but occasionally raging and tropical.
We start somewhere in the cold climes of Russia. Siberia, most likely. Men in blue and yellow snowsuits scatter across a frozen river. They press their faces against the ice, trying to peer into its depths. What are they looking for? Are they scientists? Fisherman? Without the benefit of narration, interview footage or other contextual material, we’re stranded as distant observers. It’s a curious beginning to a film filled with curiosity. Eventually, we come to realize these men are police officers searching for a vehicle that has fallen through the early spring thaw of ice. It’s an incident that the film’s footage—in turns both comic and tragic—reveals to be distressingly common. Locals motor across the icy shortcut with abandon, oblivious to the danger under their tires. Police shout mute warnings in their general direction and trudge after them, ready to recover yet another sunken vehicle.
This is just one of Aquarela’s many stunning, wordless sequences centered in and around water. They unfold, one after another, like interconnected visual poems, each contemplating the majesty, power and danger of nature. The cinematography, confined almost entirely to landscapes of white and blue, is mesmerizing. Helicopter shots sweep across fields of ice. Cameras pan up towering waterfalls. Waves slam into the camera lens, threatening to sweep away image and filmmaker alike. Kossakovsky acted as his own cinematographer here, evidently putting himself a great risk to capture these indelible images from around the globe—which were lensed at 96 frames per second. (Films are typically shot at 24 frames per second, meaning the image clarity here is unprecedented.)
On the soundtrack—broken only occasionally by the sludgy punch of a metallic Norwegian guitar riff—we hear the steady liquid roll of waves, the ominous tick of ice thawing, the thunderous crack of icebergs calving off a glacier. At other times—as we plunge below the waves to observe the endless, gel-blue ripples of an iceberg’s understructure—sound drops away to a silent infinity. This is, at times, more meditation than movie.
Aquarela isn’t quite as abstract as, say, the trippy music video that is Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. But it occupies similar territory. It is a visual marvel, hypnotic in its simplicity and breathtaking in its quiet power. Kossakovsky isn’t selling any particular ecological message, however. This isn’t explicitly about pollution or climate change. Viewers are simply presented with our liquid planet in all its raw glory. Any editorializing is left up to them. Humans are glimpsed at times, jamming a leg through the thinning Siberian ice or trying to tame rough seas on a sail boat. Animals are even rarer, being rescued alongside humans on some hurricane-ravaged streets, for example. The prevailing image is simply that of glorious H2O: waves, icebergs, waterfalls, hurricanes, glaciers, hydroelectric dams, billowing clouds. All of it equally beautiful and scary.
If you’re in a receptive, nature-loving mood, Aquarela will awe you, thrill you and leave you properly humbled. If nothing else this film should give you pause and might just inspire you to look a little more respectfully at the clear liquid sloshing around in that cheap plastic Aquafina bottle you bought at your neighborhood 7-Eleven.