Aquarela (2018)

Aquarela is an immersive and visually stunning documentary about the awesome power of water in nature.

It’s not a conventional film, more an experience.  Director Victor Kossakovsky took his cameras to some extreme and unforgiving locations to capture some amazing footage.

We approach glaciers calving ice, terrific storms at sea, the treacherous frozen surface of Lake Baikal, huge threatening waves looming high above us, giant icebergs violently turning and bobbing in the freezing ocean – the camera moving above and even diving below them.  We visit Miami at the mercy of hurricane Irma, and finally the Angel Falls in Venezuela.

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A tiny sail boat dwarfed by a glacier

When we occasionally see people, we are reminded about how small we are in comparison, and how helpless.  ‘Aquarela’ is Russian for ‘watercolour’, but there’s nothing delicate about this film; the presence of danger or death is never far away.

In the opening scenes, we watch people walking on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal, in Siberia, the deepest lake on the planet.  At first as we observe them silently it’s not clear what they’re doing.  The thin ice fractures and one of the men drops through to the freezing water below; he hurriedly scramble out again as if it were second nature. They seem to be looking for something below; we see them cut a large hole and eventually recover a car that must have fallen through the ice.

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Rescuing a car on the thin ice of Lake Baikal

This seems an amusing spectacle at first, but then the camera captures another car driving across the ice in the distance as it attempts a shortcut across the lake.  It plunges into the frozen water; the rescuers rush over but one man is not recovered, his friends in shock.  In a later sequence we spy a motor boat making deranged circles amidst the icebergs; we’re never told but we guess that something terrible has happened to the driver and the boat will continue circling by itself until the fuel runs out.

As a cinematic image the circling boat reminded me of a sequence with a truck in Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small and Aquarela evokes Herzog’s thirst to capture extreme images and a poetic truth about humankind’s relationship with nature.

The filmmakers seem to take some incredible risks to capture this footage.  During the Q&A they explained that even the intrepid director was anxious when they sailed extremely close to the edge of a glacier among the falling ice.

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A violent hurricane in Miami

Kossakovsky couldn’t get a visa to film the storms in Miami, but one of his cameramen volunteered and drove through the abandoned city to capture the violent winds and rain in the evacuated city streets.  The camera glides slowly forward, its calm movement in contrast with the wild, frenzied storm it depicts.  In another sequence the filmmakers manage to keep the camera steady while being thrown around in a boat in a tumultuous sea storm.  The camera lens doesn’t even get wet in the spray.

Kossakovsky refused to divulge his technical secrets of how they captured this footage, but he insists that there was no CGI involved, everything filmed is real and they plan to publish a book on the technology they invented.

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Setting up the camera in calmer water

The image quality is similarly stunning; it was filmed in 96 frames per second, i.e. four times the normal filming speed, for higher resolution.  Even projected at just 48 frames per second on a huge screen it looked amazing.  This is a film to experience on the biggest screen possible.

Occasionally the footage is accompanied by a heavy metal soundtrack.  That might seem heavy handed and laughable in many documentaries but here it feels appropriate.  Apparently Kossakovsky had commissioned some British composers to write a more conventional soundtrack, but it didn’t feel right.  The metal emphasises the immensity.

Aquarela is a unique film.  It’s not really a nature or science documentary, it’s more like somehow being inside the photos in an issue of National Geographic.  It’s even more minimalist than Jennifer Peedom’s impressive Mountain.  There’s no narrative voice over, no ‘message’ or meaning.  Instead, as the credits role we’re left stunned by the wonder and immensity of the images we’ve just encountered.

It’s just you and the water.

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Victor Kossakovsky demonstrating what it’s like to film on a boat in choppy seas.  At the London Film Festival premiere on 14th October 2018

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