BEV 2014 boasts a pair of events showcasing the strength and diversity of Canada’s fertile film industry. We’re proud to host the UK premiere for Louise Archambault’s radiant Quebecois drama Gabrielle, which picked up gongs for Best Picture and Best Actress at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards (formerly the Genies), plus a London premiere for Jennifer Baichwal and world-famous photographer Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark, fascinating winner of the Best Feature Length Documentary prize.
Set in a delightfully sun-dappled Montreal, Gabrielle stars Gabrielle Marion-Rivard as its title character: a 22-year-old woman with the rare neurodevelopmental disorder Williams syndrome, who tries to assert her independence via a budding romance with fellow choir member Martin (Alexandre Landry) at a home for adults with learning disabilities. The stakes are raised further by subplots involving Gabrielle’s adoring sister Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), who has to decide whether or not to join her lover on the other side of the world, and the singing group’s imminent open-air concert with Quebec music legend Robert Charlebois (appearing as himself).
French-Canadian writer-director Louise Archambault earned domestic acclaim for her 2005 feature debut Familia and has also made a string of factual shorts. Gabrielle combines aspects of this prior work into the best kind of feel-good, her handheld shooting style achieving an airy naturalism that never stoops to emotional manipulation. In a recent interview with IndieWire she explained: “I didn’t want to go into ‘miserablism’… but I didn’t want to go sugary either. If I would have taken only actors and make-believe, I’m not sure the feeling would be the same. I knew I wanted to be in the frontier of fiction film, it’s scripted, but the way it’s done is very documentary-oriented.”
Her self-described “love story with challenges” takes flight on the chemistry shared by the entrancing Marion-Rivard, who has the same condition as her character in real life, and professional actor Landry. You find yourself really rooting for the would-be couple as they falter all too believably down the path of first love. Likewise, the scenes between the two sisters exude an unforced realism, while the musical group’s songs are allowed to play out to full, spirit-soaring effect.
Documentaries that appeal to both the head and the heart – without overstating their case on either front – are a rare breed, but Toronto filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal has been honing a distinctive style of factual storytelling since 1998’s mysterious author portrait Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles. Watermark is her second collaboration with renowned Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky, following on from 2006’s international industry kaleidoscope Manufactured Landscapes. Once again the movie takes the form of a globetrotting collage, with the production of Burtynsky’s photo book Water as its unifying thread.
The artist himself verbalizes some of the big questions driving this five-year quest – “How does water shape us? And then how do we shape water?” – but the beauty of Baichwal’s loose narrative (and it is very beautiful) lies in showing rather telling us the answers. The viewer is invited to luxuriate in breathtaking images of such mass gatherings as the Hindu pilgrimage Maha Kumbh Mela by the Ganges and the annual US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach, while highlighting the barren Colorado River Delta in Mexico and localized chemical waste caused by the all-export leather tanneries of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Journeying from the frozen 1,710,000 square km of the Greenland Ice Sheet to the six million-year-old Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains, the camera considers the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver and “a billion dollar plumbing project” designed to combat dust pollution at California’s arid Owens Lakebed. These research- and conservation-oriented initiatives are presented alongside the construction site for China’s massive Xiluodo Dam, a hydroelectric monolith that’s six times the size of the Hoover.
These extremes of human endeavour are punctuated by reflections from cultures who have to be more in tune with nature, be it the communally minded Chinese abalone farmers tying their lots together in typhoon-prone Luoyuan Bay, or the native people of the Stikine River Watershed in British Columbia. As the latter elaborate: “We were taught to live with the land… Every valley, every mountain range has a chain of lakes behind it because we’re right at the top of the world here. It’s a cycle. It starts in the ocean, leaves the salt behind, travels up here and hits our mountains. The interaction between the sky and the sea creates this moisture that goes back out to the sea. It keeps cleansing itself.”
Alternately awe-inspiring and foreboding, Watermark is a subtle yet cumulatively stunning environmental travelogue that allows you to meditate on the richness of Earth’s aqueous resources, while pondering our oft-destructive interaction with these essential, fragile ecosystems.
Written by Manish Agarwal