Hot Docs 2009: Waterlife Review


Directed by Kevin McMahon
Canada, 2009

Official Hot Docs Synopsis:

This stunning ode to the last great supply of fresh water on earth, the Great Lakes, immerses us in their extraordinary beauty, ecological complexity, and extreme state of distress. Under assault on all fronts by a deadly combination of industrial toxins, sewage, invasive species, climate change, and profound apathy, they are on the verge of irreversible collapse. Director Kevin McMahon (recipient of the 2007 Hot Docs Focus On retrospective) navigates with fluid clarity through industrial intervention and natural splendor, from northern Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean, using breathtaking cinematography and CGI to show us the waters 35 million of us drink every day. Propelled by a soaring, evocative soundtrack, this eloquent poetic essay allows us to absorb hard information gracefully balanced with a visceral understanding of how we are inextricably linked to the fate of these waters, transforming the way we think and inspiring us act before it’s too late. Gisèle Gordon.

There are a lot of environmentally themed documentaries floating around out there, but rarely do they present themselves on such a cinematically engaging level as Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife. While many similar films end up buried under their own information, McMahon manages to balance his information with engaging storytelling, never forgetting the most important ingredient: filmmaking.

Although I’m not as familiar with McMahon’s overall body of work as I’d like to be – gotta start doing some digging! NFB here I come – I have seen his amazing film ‘The Falls’. The thing I love about that film is the confidence exuded throughout the project, aggressively taking on the numerous tangential elements of that topic with an admirable grace that says ‘this is THE definitive film on Niagara Falls’. It’s both rich in detail and visuals, reminding me of a less cerebral Vernon, Florida. That same sense of confidence can be said about Waterlife. However, its definitive nature is only dictated by the ever-changing details of its subject matter. 20 years down the road the story will either have taken a turn for the better or for the worse.

I’ve lived on the shores of Lake Ontario my entire life, and I do remember a time when people used to swim in the waters with no real fear of bacterial contamination. Yup, those were the glory days. (Even though I personally avoided the lake, having a fear of natural bodies of water.) But the fear of eating fish from Port Dalhousie never really went beyond a cynical, joking nature. In Waterlife, all of those unsubstantiated fears become reality as multiple interviews with dozens of experts sheds some light on just how dirty things really and how much worse they’re going to get. Luckily, the depressing facts are often countered by the fun ‘road trip’ sense of touring the lakes and meeting the different kinds of people that surround them.

Visually, Kevin McMahon manages to capture some amazing and often quirky images that not only manage to avoid cliche territory, but actually inspire. There’s a great scene where a posse of motor boats speed down a river, fishing nets in hand, on the hunt for the over-populated jumping Japanese Carp. It’s like the opposite of Okie Noodling. There’s also some great use of CG throughout the film, zooming in on microscopic droplets of water or bacteria passing through rivers; an almost alien look at the building blocks of life; reminiscent of the opening title sequence of David Fincher’s Fight Club. Another thing worth noting; the soundtrack is amazing. Not only does it include one of my favourite pieces of music of all time, Brian Eno’s ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ — actually, there were a couple of Brian Eno pieces, some of which were originally written for Al Reinert’s Nasa doc ‘For All Mankind’, a film that possibly shares some themes — but it also makes good use of some Philip Glass and Sigur Ros. I fully admit I’m a sucker from the melding of inspiring images and beautiful music, but isn’t that what cinema is all about? Add this to the fact that I was lucky enough to catch Waterlife projected on a pristine 35mm print! Overall, Waterlife was probably the best experience I had at this years Hot Docs festival. — Jay

Waterlife opens commercially June 5 in Toronto and will be having special screenings June 6 in Niagara on the Lake and June 7 in Niagara Falls, NY as part of the Onghiara Festival.


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