Glasgow Film Festival 2019: Aquarela

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Credit: Aconite Productions

Manon Haag
Deputy Culture Editor – Film & TV

Aquarela is one of those raw cinematic experiences for which words have no choice but to surrender to the power of images. It is a documentary about water, and while this is entirely true, there could be no greater disservice to the film than to describe it in these terms. Everything factual about Aquarela will paint the idea of a contemplative documentary for tree-huggers and experimental cinema buffs. Yet, I will wager my money that whether you identify as either (or both!) or not, Aquarela will challenge your expectations.

It is the loudest and most visually demanding contemplative film I have ever seen, alternating scenes of extreme serenity and minimalism with saturated shots of ice blocks and waves blasting through the Dolby Atmos sound system especially powered by Brewin Dolphin for Glasgow Film Festival. While the images are breathtaking, the film goes beyond watching 24-frame a second on a screen, and not only because it is shot at four times that speed. It is a visceral experience on par with roller coaster rides. And Glasgow Film Festival’s commitment to showing the film in optimal technical conditions must be acknowledged in that regard. It is quite remarkable in an era where the film-going experience is more often centred on sugary snacks than on technical prowess.

Every shot in Aquarela inspires terror, fascination and awe for a natural resource so common yet so precious, water. The film alternates between lingering shots of scintillating ice with dizzyingly fast-paced tracking shots of waterfalls, melting ice cap, and devastating storms. The camera flips from meandering through the barren waters of the arctic, catching traces of life through the frozen desert, to spectacular waterfalls from towering high rocky cliffs. Expect no interviews with water specialists or Attenborough-like enveloping voice-over. The film is a raw account of the terrifying strength of water. If you ever dreamt of sailing halfway across the world, sit through a storm filmed by Viktor Kossakovsky and think twice about it! Yet, it seems that water is not telling us that it will crush us no matter what. Rather, it demands attention, respect and consideration. Otherwise, it will sure as hell get you.

There are few humans in Kossakovsky’s film but whenever one of them steps into the frame, they are forced to admit to their own defeat in the face of the overpowering force of water. At times, they display overflows of arrogance and pay a high price for it. Aquarela is a film about life yet, it does not exempt human tragedy. This is because it is not centred on human life, but on the resources of life and their capacity to give and to take at anytime. The ambition of Aquarela is epic and it is safe to say that it fulfills all that it set out to do and much more. It is a celebration of water, without a doubt but equally, it is a ode to filmmaking and the possibilities of combining sound and the moving image. It is not a wishful portrait of a primitive earth where Nature remains and man-made things come to pass and subdue themselves to it. Rather it is the story of a relationship wherein agency has too often been attributed to man. Aquarela is a one and a half hour couple therapy session where water gets to speak in deafening growls while we sit, watch, listen and feel.