Last Tuesday, Pathé De Munt hosted the screening of Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela (2018) as part of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)’s program. IDFA started on November 14 and is up until November 25.
Kossakovsky, described as “Russia’s most poetic formalist film-maker at the moment,” dedicates a powerful visual ode to water in all its forms. The title, the Portuguese word for watercolor painting, evokes what the movie is meant to be: a moving, 89-minutes-long portrait of one of the four elements.
Filmed in a variety of locations, such as Siberia, Greenland, and Venezuela, Aquarela depicts water in the solid, liquid and gaseous state. A cathartic flow of high-definition images presents massive glaciers collapsing, cracked ice lakes, mountainous oceanic waves, tremendous hurricanes, and majestic waterfalls. There is almost no storytelling, no context, and no captions. Water is the main topic and the main character. Mankind only occasionally appears as a vulnerable presence that succumbs to nature’s elemental force.
The only narratively-driven sequence is at the beginning of the documentary. In Siberian Lake Baikal, where climate change causes premature and unexpected ice melting, the camera accidentally captures the tragic death of a local driver, whose car suddenly plunges through the melting ice. After the screening, Kossakovsky claimed that he decided to keep the scene, despite ethical concerns, in order to “prevent another death.” “Locals are confident that these accidents only happen to tourists,” he explained. He wanted to show that this is not the case. This accident also abruptly changed director’s initial intentions, which were to capture water’s beauty, but eventually decided to film water’s drama.
In Greenland, effects of climate change are also spectacularly evident, as massive cliffs of ice collapse into the water. Moreover, the camera follows a schooner’s crew in the Atlantic Ocean, struggling to navigate through mountainous walls of raging waves. In Miami, the movie shows the disaster caused by hurricane Irma in a crescendo of tension that is only smoothed away in the last section, where the peaceful aspect of water is finally captured in a poetical depiction of Venezuelan Angel Falls.
In an almost-mute documentary, photography plays a major role. Co-signed by Director of Photography Ben Bernhard, 37, and Kossakovsky himself, Aquarela’s photography was accomplished with the latest high-tech stabilization equipment and waterproof cameras. Bernhard, defined by Kossakovsky as his “right hand,” evoked the major challenges faced while trying to shoot water from water’s point of view. He explained how he constantly had to work in extreme environmental conditions. In the middle of an oceanic storm, with waves throwing objects all over the boat’s cabin, Bernhard held camera equipment still while experiencing heavy sea-sickness, or climbed high masts to set the aerial shootings.
In Aquarela, images speak by themselves, leaving the audience thinking about climate change statistics. Bernhard explained how the troupe directly experienced the effects of climate change. “When we arrived in Siberia, we planned to film peaceful crystal lakes.” However, they had to wait for the filming equipment, which got stuck at the Russian border. “When it finally arrived, ice had started melting and was already white.”
After the screening, during a public question session, Kossakovsky claimed that Aquarela changed him by making him realize that “we have done everything wrong, at least in the last 500 years.” “The importance of the human being is wrong,” he declared. “We are not more important than other species, but we are so self-centered that we kill every entity not agreeing with the story we tell ourselves. We believe that we are gods. I believe that we are wrong.” Aquarela was meant to be an aesthetic documentary, but ended up carrying a heavy political message. “We cannot escape from this,” said Kossakovsky. “If we are guilty, we are guilty.” Kossakovsky’s speech ended with a long applause.
Already premiered out of competition at Venice Film Festival, awarded as best documentary at Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival, Aquarela will be screened five times during IDFA. All screenings are already sold out.