Aquarela: The Rivers and the Lakes That You’re Used To, by David Bax
In Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela, all the music is by symphonic metal artist Eicca Toppinen, best known as one of the members of cello/metal group Apocalyptica. It put me in mind of Daniel Dencik’s The Expedition to the End of the World–another documentary about ice, water and climate change–which used the music of Metallica on its soundtrack. I suppose it’s not a stretch to think of heavy metal when you think of catastrophe but Kossakovsky, like Dencik before him, doesn’t merely record death and destruction. Just like metal musicians, he makes something beautiful out of it.
Aquarela‘s most widely acknowledged selling point is that it was shot at a high frame rate (96 frames per second) and will be projected, wherever possible, at 48 frames per second and in Dolby Atmos to boot. Kossakovsky goes all in on this image-and-sound-first approach. Traveling the world from Siberia to Miami and any other place water gathers in massive quantities and in different states of being and motion, he refuses to structure the inherent fluidity of his subject with narration or even text providing dates or locations or any such thing. The rare human voices are captured as incidentally as the rush of a waterfall or the cracking of ice.
Kossakovsky starts with Siberia’s Lake Baikal (without identifying it as such; thanks, press notes!), where the surface is covered in thick ice for most of the first half of every year. With the earth warming, though, the melting point has been arriving earlier and earlier every year, which spells potentially deadly news for those who drive across the lake and those on the rescue teams who try to save them when their cars disappear beneath the surface with a queasy, almost surrealistically gentle quickness. All of the above information comes from overheard snippets of conversation among the rescuers and among those they reach in time to rescue, which is not all of them.
This is the most immediately disturbing and upsetting part of Aquarela and, by putting it first, Kossakovsky presents it as a key, a legend, a metaphor applicable to everything we see thereafter. It seems cruelly random to see the freezing lake claim some and not others but that’s what climate change is doing to the whole world. Not to be cute about it but humanity is on thin ice.
Most of us, however, don’t live near Lake Baikal and don’t witness the devastating environmental and human toll of climate change up close. Kossakovsky goes to the places where it can’t be ignored and films building-sized chunks of ice falling off glaciers and into the sea or city street signs buffeted by furious rainfall. The high frame rate gives a new meaning to the term “persistence of vision.” It’s impossible to look away from the terrible beauty of Aquarela‘s images.
What Kossakovsky shows us is indeed terrible, both in the sense that what’s happening to our world is extremely bad and extremely massive. When we get up close to eddies in a river or plumes of mist from a waterfall, the incomprehensible mass and rush of movement becomes disorienting. But we deserve to be shaken thus, to realize that water, a source of nourishment and purity, also erodes mountains and carves canyons. Aquarela is a staggering tribute to that water, which gave us life and which will eventually wash away any trace that we were ever here.