Watermark: Reflections on a Vital Resource

For one week starting April 11, the Kendall Cinema in Cambridge will feature a new film called WATERMARK by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky. It’s a clever and fitting title, as the film’s main theme is both transparent and indelible: by exploring the myriad ways that water connects, supports, and shapes life on earth, and the reciprocal ways that humans exploit, worship, transform, and increasingly threaten this precious resource, we come to appreciate the changing nature of our relationship to the limitless world of water and the limited water of the world.

http://static01.nyt.com/images/2014/04/04/arts/04RDP_WATERMARK_SPAN/WATERMARK-master675.jpg

Similar to the team’s 2006 award-winning collaboration, MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, the film follows Burtynsky as he travels around the globe to create large-format photographs of large-scale phenomena. Together, we confront stunning examples of just how profoundly our species has altered the planet’s natural water systems: the concrete walls of the towering Xiolangdi and Xiluodo dams; the technicolor contamination of tannery runoff sluice-ways in Dhaka; the immense “Water World” grid network of floating abalone farms in the South China Sea; and the dry river beds and toxic dust storms left behind from the thirsty snaking aqueducts in California and elsewhere. Added to these environmental and infrastructural landscapes — again, as in the previous film — Burtynsky’s eye seeks out massive rivers and oceans of humanity as well: beaches thronging with people at the U.S. Surfing Open; crowds, mesmerized hourly, by the Bellagio’s Dancing Fountains in Las Vegas; and the obligatory story of 30 million pilgrims streaming down to wade in the Ganges River each year.

Through Burtynsky’s lens and the still images he creates, we see these people, places, and problems transformed into luxurious, wall-sized, 60-megapixel color prints; the flow of the film is punctuated with pauses as the finished photographs emerge and expand to fill the entire screen. At the same time, through Baichwal’s lens and the moving images she captures, we learn how these photographs were made and — perhaps more importantly — we learn how read them and make sense of what we are seeing. In the words of the director, “Watermark tries to create a space to think about something in a different way. After three years of almost total immersion, I will never turn on a tap with the same unconscious nonchalance that I did before we embarked on this challenging and deeply rewarding film.” Taken another way, the “watermark” of the title could therefore evoke this hidden sigil, a promise of potential transformation for those who look: that is, the life-altering change in perspective that great art is able to bring about may require us to stop for a moment to seek it out.

The film illustrates Burtynsky’s process, guiding us through his unique way of inquiry as he visits each location and uses his camera to reflect critically and think deeply about our dependence on water and the effects of our actions on the planet’s natural systems. We see him approach each image – often with a jeweler’s loupe fastened to his eye — to probe the pictures and extract the stories contained within them: to help us learn this process ourselves, the film likewise zooms in to the actual scenes and animates the stories, restoring the context and life frozen (or perhaps encapsulated) by the camera. When treated as such — by a truly inquisitive, reflective, actively-engaged viewer — Burtynsky’s photographs can be recognized as a form of fully “synoptic art” (following Allan Bloom’s introduction to Rousseau’s Emile): similar to great works of philosophy, they present “something with which one can live and which becomes deeper as one becomes deeper.”

Finally — again, as with a true watermark — the images in the film also serve as proof of the distinctiveness and quality of this particular product, and no written review can convey the power and complexity of these images: Burtynsky has selected the perfect medium to make his points; Baichwal’s equally important contribution is to guide us (wordlessly; artfully; showing, not telling) so that we may learn to see in new ways and begin to think with an active eye that connects what we observe with what we know, feel, experience, and perhaps ultimately, choose to do about it.

Living in Boston, we are extremely fortunate to be able to see this film on the big screen, as it must be seen, even if for just one week.1 Consider these brief comments as a teaser for the film, not a replacement: go see it, pause, and think about the landscape of water you inhabit.

Footnotes:

1 The film is also scheduled to screen throughout April and May in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere — see http://burtynsky-water.com/watermark/us-screenings-theatre-listings/ for complete listings.

Blow-Up: the Filmerick

As described previously, I’ve been exploring a new medium, the “filmerick” (limericks to summarize great films). Over the weekend my daughter and I were fortunate to catch a special screening of BLOW-UP at the Harvard Film Archive, and here’s what I came up with:

BLOW-UP (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
With all of its visual glories,
And behavior abhorrent to Tories,
Mr. Antonioni,
has certainly shown he’s
proficient in shaggy-dog stories.

The film itself is great, of course: a wonderful, touchingly sad meander through 1960s London, ushering in what would later be recognized as a golden age of the cinema of urban alienation and the search for meaning amid the chaos of modern life.

I was especially moved by how beautifully Antonioni filmed both the perfectly balanced “design world” (fashion shoots, bohemian artist “live-work space”) and the eclectic clutter of “real London” (crowds and demonstrations, junk shops, construction sites). Both draw you in – part of the mystery implied in every shot – and one leaves the film with an appreciation for the eye’s uncanny ability to frame and capture the art all around us. (Although whether we can every truly grasp and understand what we capture is another story altogether…)

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-aef3gU2Bd5I/Ty6ZumZQ6JI/AAAAAAAAAvg/i3qaYtijgew/s1600/blowup3.jpg

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-3dKSs_563Zg/TZYF9mxs7kI/AAAAAAAACiI/MREYEctoVWg/s1600/01e_03_009.jpg

“Filmericks” from my “City in Film” class

This semester I’ve been teaching a new course on “The City in Film” in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. As the syllabus describes:

Using film as a lens to explore and interpret various aspects of
the urban experience in both the U.S. and abroad, this course
presents a survey of important developments in urbanism from 1900
to the present day, including changes in technology, bureaucracy,
and industrialization; immigration and national identity; race,
class, gender, and economic inequality; politics, conformity, and
urban anomie; planning, development, private property,
displacement, sprawl, environmental degradation, and
suburbanization; and more.

My plan is to vary the films shown in the course from year to year, but to always include a balance of classics from the history of film, an occasional experimental or avant-garde film, and a number of more recent, mainstream movies. This year’s lineup includes the obligatory (and excellent) METROPOLIS, an NYC romp in ON THE TOWN, a touch of photo-realistic noir in THE NAKED CITY, some psycho-geographic dérive in LONDON, and much more — 13 films in all.

To help liven the class up a bit (as if all these great city films isn’t enough!), and also to help us all keep the films straight, I’ve challenged the class to come up with limericks for each film. Writing a few of my own, I think I may have invented a new artform: the “filmerick.” Here’s what I came up with for the first three films:

METROPOLIS (Fritz Lang, 1926)

Joh Frederson’s city is smart,
The brains tell the brawn when to start.
       But inspired by Hel,
       The workers rebel:
The HEAD and the HANDS need a HEART.


BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A CITY (Walther Ruttman, 1927)

Made from hundreds of meters of stock,
And covering block upon block,
       This film, like a rhyme,
       Shows a town keeping time:
BERLIN is one big cuckoo clock.


MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936)

With all of its plot twists and swerves,
This film, like a clarion, serves
       To give the impression
       That the Great Depression
Did a hell of a job on our nerves.

Stay tuned for more…

My Brooklyn to Air on PBS

We’re pleased to pass along the news that MY BROOKLYN (recently screened as part of the MIT Urban Planning Film Series) will be featured in a special national PBS Broadcast on TV on Tuesday, January 14, 2014.

The screening is part of the PBS series America ReFramed, curated by the American Documentary team (the producers of POV). America ReFramed brings nonfiction independent films to the airwaves and cable, showcasing films that give viewers a “snapshot of the transforming American life—the guts, the glory, the grit of a new and changing America.”

Most of the screenings are on PBS World channels, but some regular stations (like WGBH — yay, Boston!) are showing it on their main channels too. To find out if you have PBS World via broadcast or cable, go to http://worldchannel.org/schedule/localize/ and enter your zipcode. The program you are looking for is “America ReFramed” and the date for My Brooklyn is Jan. 14th, 2014. (It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and there are some other amazing documentaries on the series so it’s worth knowing how to find it.)

My Brooklyn will also be streaming free from the America ReFramed site for a month. If you haven’t seen it yet, this is your chance; and if you have seen this amazingly personal gentrification narrative, please help us spread the word.

Gaining Ground at MIT: Wednesday, December 11, 2013

There will be a free screening of GAINING GROUND: BUILDING COMMUNITY ON DUDLEY STREET at MIT on Wednesday December 11th, 6:30pm, MIT AVT/Long Lounge, Room 7-341, 77 Massachusetts Ave. Food provided, Q&A to follow.

The film — a one-hour follow-up to the award-winning documentary Holding Ground (1996) — shows how one diverse Boston neighborhood has stemmed the tide against enormous odds. In the midst of the economic meltdown, GAINING GROUND explores the innovative, grassroots organizing efforts of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston. DSNI was created 25 years ago when the community had been devastated by bank redlining, arson-for-profit and illegal dumping, and has become one of the preeminent models for community-based change. Over the course of two years, we watch a new generation of leaders working to prevent foreclosures and bring jobs and opportunities for young people to one of the city’s most diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods.

This screening is sponsored by the MIT Office of the Dean For Graduate Education.

Just Added: Shift Change (2013)

Thanks to some great students at New Economy@MIT and our awesome partners at MIT Rotch Library, we’ve been able to fill a gap in our fall schedule with one more film:

  • Thur 11/7: SHIFT CHANGE: PUTTING DEMOCRACY TO WORK (2013) With the long decline in US manufacturing and today’s economic crisis, millions have been thrown out of work, and many are losing their homes. The usual economic solutions are not working, so some citizens and public officials are ready to think outside of the box, to reinvent our failing economy in order to restore long term community stability and a more egalitarian way of life. SHIFT CHANGE tells the little known stories of employee-owned businesses that respond to this challenge, competing successfully in today’s economy while providing secure, dignified jobs in democratic workplaces. Directed by Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin. Co-sponsored by New Economy@MIT. 60 minutes. 6pm, MIT Room 3–133.

Note: Unlike all other films in the series, this one will start at 6pm. As always, free and open to everyone. Please join us, bring friends, spread the word.

MIT Urban Film Series: Fall 2013

Happy Labor Day, and welcome back to the new school year. We’ve finalized the line-up for our Fall 2013 MIT Urban Planning Film Series, listed below. As always, we’ve included some classics—including a 50th anniversary showing of Francesco Rosi’s HANDS OVER THE CITY to start us off—as well as some great new stuff, exploring renewable energy, gentrification, crime and the Mexican drug wars, and the promise and perils of international development. We continue our partnership with PBS/POV American Documentary to bring some special community screenings to the Boston area. And we’ve even included a special pre-Thanksgiving show of 2007′s crowd-pleaser, KING CORN.

(Note: click here to download the complete schedule as a nice pdf flyer. Please feel free to print, copy, distribute—all are welcome!)

  • Thurs 9/12: HANDS OVER THE CITY/LE MANI SULLA CITTA (1963) Rod Steiger stars as a scheming land developer in this blistering work of social realism from 1963. An expose of the politically driven real-estate speculation that devastated Naples’s civilian landscape, the film moves breathlessly from a cataclysmic building collapse to the backroom negotiations of civic leaders vying for power in a city council election, laying bare the inner workings of corruption with passion and outrage. Directed by Francesco Rosi. Winner of the Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival. 105 minutes; Italian with English subtitles. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.

    http://dusp.mit.edu/sites/all/files/styles/banner_image/public/bannerimages/event/hands_over_c.jpeg Rod Steiger in HANDS OVER THE CITY (1963)

  • Thur 9/26: 5 BROKEN CAMERAS (2011) This Palestinian-Israeli-French co-production presents a deeply-personal first-hand account of life and non-violent resistance in Bil’in, a West Bank village surrounded by Israeli settlements. Filmed by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, who bought his first camera in 2005 to record the birth of his youngest son Gibreel, the collaboration follows one family’s evolution over five years of village upheaval. As the story unfolds—structured in chapters around the destruction of each one of Burnat’s cameras—we witness Gibreel grow from a newborn baby into a young boy who observes the world unfolding around him with the astute powers of perception that only children possess. Burnat watches from behind the lens as olive trees are bulldozed, protests intensify and lives are lost in this cinematic diary and unparalleled record of life in the West Bank. Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi. Winner, World Cinema/Directing, Sundance; Special Jury and Audience Award, IDFA; Nominated for Academy Award, Best Documentary Feature. 90 minutes; Hebrew and Arabic w/English subtitles. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 10/10: CAPE SPIN! AN AMERICAN POWER STRUGGLE (2011) This tragicomic tale explores the surreal and fascinating battle over America’s largest clean energy project. When energy entrepreneur Jim Gordon first proposed putting 130 wind turbines in fabled Nantucket Sound, he had no idea that a firestorm would erupt, as the country’s first proposed offshore wind farm triggered a schism in this idyllic coastal region, pitting neighbor against neighbor and environmentalist against environmentalist. Revealing the root causes of their furor, the filmmakers enjoyed unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the key players on both sides of the controversy. The tale frames the battle over Nantucket Sound as a microcosm of America’s struggle towards energy sustainability. After 10 years, $70 million and 8,000 pages of analysis the Federal Government approved the wind farm project on April 28, 2010—but the controversy continues…. Directed by Robbie Gemmel and John Kirby. Official selection: Woodstock Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival; Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. 84 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 10/17: BEAUBOURG (1977) The great Neo-Realist Roberto Rossellini’s beautiful and languid final film documents the opening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, candidly presenting the public’s response to this major cultural phenomenon. Shot on the Pompidou Centre’s opening day in 1977, Rossellini hid dozens of microphones throughout the building to create a soundtrack composed of the public’s reactions to this cultural phenomenon—or in the filmmakers own words, “A film without comments or music.” As the Italian director here turns his inimitable eye upon “Beaubourg” in a vision of critical skepticism, we are transported back to experience this highly influential cultural center at its nascence. Directed by Roberto Rossellini. 55 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.

    http://dusp.mit.edu/sites/all/files/styles/banner_image/public/bannerimages/event/beaubourg.jpg Filming BEAUBOURG (1977)

  • Thurs 10/24: GOOD FORTUNE (2010) A provocative exploration of how massive international efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa may be undermining the very communities they aim to benefit. In Kenya’s rural countryside, Jackson’s farm is being flooded by an American investor who hopes to alleviate poverty by creating a multimillion-dollar rice farm. Across the country in Nairobi, Silva’s home and business in Africa’s largest shantytown are being demolished as part of a U.N. slum-upgrading project. The gripping stories of two Kenyans battling to save their homes from large-scale development present a unique opportunity see foreign aid through eyes of the people it is intended to help. Directed by Landon Van Soest and Jeremy Levine; presented in collaboration with the award-winning documentary series POV (www.pbs.org/pov). Winner: Witness Award, Silverdocs Film Festival; official selection: IDFA Festival; Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. 90 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thur 11/7: SHIFT CHANGE: PUTTING DEMOCRACY TO WORK (2013) With the long decline in US manufacturing and today’s economic crisis, millions have been thrown out of work, and many are losing their homes. The usual economic solutions are not working, so some citizens and public officials are ready to think outside of the box, to reinvent our failing economy in order to restore long term community stability and a more egalitarian way of life. SHIFT CHANGE tells the little known stories of employee-owned businesses that respond to this challenge, competing successfully in today’s economy while providing secure, dignified jobs in democratic workplaces. Directed by Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin. Co-sponsored by New Economy@MIT. 60 minutes. 6pm (note different time), MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 11/14: MISSION HILL & THE MIRACLE OF BOSTON (1978) Once a predominantly Irish neighborhood of houses, churches, and small stores, after World War II Boston’s Mission Hill began to change: thousands of units of public housing were built—and allowed to decay there; nearby hospitals expanded, displacing people from their homes; developers and speculators bought and sold property and built twenty-story apartment buildings. A new, poor population and an affluent professional population arrived to compete for parts of the old neighborhood. Through the voices of the people of Mission Hill, the film tells the story of urban renewal, racial conflict, and the struggle of a neighborhood to survive through changing times. Directed by Richard Broadman; special award winner, Boston Society of Film Critics, 1984. 60 minutes. Special guests: Karilyn Crockett, MLK Visiting Scholar, MIT; John Grady, Professor of Sociology, Wheaton College (producer). 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 11/21: KING CORN (2007) Special Thanksgiving feature. A feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. In the film, two friends move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat—and how we farm. Directed by Aaron Woolf; written and featuring Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, with a special appearance by Michael Pollan. Winner: George Foster Peabody Award; Official selection: SXSW; Big Sky Documentary Film Festival; Chicago International Documentary Film Festival. 88 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.
  • Thurs 12/12: MY BROOKLYN (2012) Billed as “the real story behind the takeover of America’s hippest city,” the film follows director Kelly Anderson’s personal journey, as a Brooklyn “gentrifier” seeking to understand the forces reshaping her neighborhood along lines of race and class. Anderson moves to Brooklyn in 1988, lured by cheap rents and bohemian culture, but by the election of Michael Bloomberg in 2001 a massive speculative real estate boom is rapidly altering the neighborhood. She watches as an explosion of luxury housing and chain store development spurs bitter conflict over who has a right to live in the city and to determine its future. While some people view these development patterns as ultimately revitalizing the city, to others, they are erasing the eclectic urban fabric, economic and racial diversity, creative alternative culture, and unique local economies that drew them to Brooklyn in the first place. No less than the city’s soul is at stake. A film by Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean. 85 minutes. 7pm, MIT Room 3–133.

    http://dusp.mit.edu/sites/all/files/styles/banner_image/public/bannerimages/event/my_brooklyn.jpg MY BROOKLYN (2012)

As always, all films open to the general public, free, first-come/first-served; most shows to include previews, shorts, and/or additional video ephemera. Special thanks to MIT’s Rotch Library for help tracking down titles and rights and MIT A/V Services for troubleshooting the tech with us. Times and locations subject to change; please check prior to coming. For more information, contact eglenn@mit.edu.

Bidder 70 at MIT

Just in time for Earth Day, Fossil Free MIT is sponsoring a free screening of BIDDER 70. On December 19, 2008 Tim DeChristopher disrupted a highly disputed Utah BLM Oil and Gas lease auction, effectively safeguarding thousands of acres of pristine Utah land that were slated for oil and gas leases. Not content to merely protest outside, Tim entered the auction hall and registered as bidder #70. He outbid industry giants on land parcels (which, starting at $2 an acre, were adjacent to national treasures like Canyonlands National Park), winning 22,000 acres of land worth $1.7 million before the auction was halted. The film centers on this ingenious act of civil disobedience, which helped ignite a spirit of civil disobedience in the name of climate justice.

The event will take place on campus in building 54, room 54-100, Monday April 22 at 9:00pm.