Heroic vistas and large-scale abstractions are good for the human soul. Upon viewing, we’re reminded of what matters. Edward Burtynsky has made sure that we’re reminded of a couple other things, too: lately, the world’s precariousness, and his artistry.
Largely hailed for its artful frame on the documentary genre, Watermark — a collaboration between filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal and famed photographer Burtynsky — was awarded the Toronto Film Critics Association’s top prize for $100,000, last week. Following its September premier at the Toronto International Film Festival, the critics’ group honored the film with the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award, making this the second year running that the association’s given its top prize to a Canadian documentary (Sarah Polley was honored for Stories We Tell last year).
Burtynsky and Baichwal are being celebrated for lending research and image to one of the world's most prized and endangered resources, while also framing Burtynsky’s practice with stature and scale. The artist — who fairly towers over Canada’s photographic artworld, assuming positions on many pivotal boards and juries, such as Contact and the $50,000 Scotiabank Photography Award, which he co-founded in 2010 — moves from the helicopter to the studio, from the moving image to the still, producing an art book from the very subject of this film while documenting the latter’s global value and current perilousness. The dual focus works to aggrandize Burtynsky’s practice, his adroit documentation of important realities ringing clangorously, and a bit hollow. But amidst the vistas of rice-paddies, Indian cleansings, and Midwest plantations — and Burtynsky’s personal site of production, where multiple assistants scurry and his pen works over vast prints to find minute errors — a poeticism carries its narrative forward.
Following the TFCA’s award, January 7, TFCA president Brian D. Johnson said in a statement, "Canada pioneered the doc genre, and Watermark shows we're still reinventing it.” Burtynsky’s insight — while touched by hubris — earns its reward.
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