Pi@LFF is a series of reviews made by a team of Pi’s Arts & Culture writers at the 62ndBFI London Film Festival. In this article, Bruno Reynell reviews Victor Kossakovsky’s powerful documentary, Aquarela.
On hearing that Aquarela is a documentary about water, you’d be forgiven for expecting a family-friendly celebration of the natural world à la Attenborough. The Finnish ‘cello-metal’ music that comes screaming through the speakers to accompany the film’s opening images would rapidly disabuse you of that notion.
However, that isn’t to say that Aquarela isn’t a celebration of nature. Kossakovsky just goes about it in a very different way, offering an intense sensory experience, sharpened by high-frame-rate lensing and a whopping 118 audio channels to convey every shimmer of water, every groan of ice.
The first stop is the enormous Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. The lake is largely frozen over and a crew of some sort are digging and chiselling, seemingly in search of something. Eventually, it turns out that they are there to retrieve cars that have been swallowed by the ice. As the men struggle to recover the vehicles, the reluctance of the depths to set them free already give a real sense of water’s menacing power – something affirmed moments later as the camera catches a car plunging headfirst through thin ice, claiming the life of its unfortunate driver.
The film then moves to Greenland, and several sequences show enormous blocks collapsing from ice shelves in dramatic manner. Equally grandiose are the icebergs captured dancing above and below the surface like gigantic sea creatures, causing immense displacements of water.
In the Atlantic, meanwhile, the crew of a yacht battle the extreme waves to try to maintain some element of control over their vessel. Pummelled by the rain and the spray, their every move is determined by the water. They can’t control it, and their only choice is to go with the flow, however rough it might be.
This idea of the subservience of humans to nature comes into full relief as we are then transported to a Miami at the mercy of Hurricane Irma. The wind and rain howl through deserted streets as hanging traffic lights cling on for dear life. Here water imposes itself on a man-made landscape, providing a disturbing reminder of the challenges that vulnerable urban areas such as Miami encounter ever more frequently in the face of climate change.
The final moments of Aquarela take place in Venezuela, at the towering Angel Falls. The initial action is up close, and the roar of the waterfall seems interminable. However, we are taken from the violent to the tranquil as the camera moves on and the view broadens. One of the final scenes presents an ethereal panorama of the Falls – a thin band of water floating down its 807 metre descent, piercing a layer of dense cloud before feeding a river below. It’s a serenely beautiful ending to this epic globetrotting homage showcasing the relentless force and irresistible allure of water in all its forms.
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