Documentary Releases: Aquarela (2018) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
For as long as movies have existed, water is an essential component to them whether it be the setting or central to the premise it is inseparable from the medium.  From Noah’s Ark to Titanic and particularly in children’s films like Disney’s The Little Mermaid, water is at the forefront encompassing the worlds either experienced or lived in by the characters.  Documentaries about water are just as prevalent with nature shows including but not limited to National Geographic and Planet Earth focusing on underwater life and conditions of particular regions and bodies of water.  And yet almost every perspective of water on film is almost always either defined by an agenda designed to make you think or feel a certain way about it, approaching water with something to do or say about it. 
Enter Russian documentary filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky, who with Long Live the Antipodes and his Paul Thomas Anderson endorsed farmland documentary Gunda has proven himself to be one of the most forward-thinking pure documentarians since the emergence of Ron Fricke and his Baraka and Samsara films.  In between Gunda and Love Live the Antipodes and in answer to the water films involving what we bring to it comes Kossakovsky’s awesome, captivating and terrifying documentary film experience Aquarela (‘water-color’ in Portuguese), possibly the most dangerous film ever made about what those omnipresent fearsome bodies of water themselves bring to us.  Rather that going the usual route of talking about water scientifically or presenting a narrative to guide us through it, Kossakovsky and Aqualera aim to see and hear out what water has to say.
A near wordless (save for some occasional Russian) experience beginning in the frozen Russian waters of Lake Baikal all the way through Hurricane Irma in Miami, Florida and back through Venezuela’s Angel Falls, from start to finish Aqualera with its Arri digital 96 frames-per-second cinematography and Dolby Atmos soundtrack is fiercely bold.  Though only some theaters at the time were able to handle projecting the footage at 48 fps, the visual results nevertheless yielded a vision of water from freezing to boiling previously unseen on the silver screen if not ever.  While a documentary, the film takes on a psychedelic, hallucinatory feeling as its pure tidal waves crash into and wave over you reminiscent of Fata Morgana or Koyaanisqatsi where the synergy of documentary footage and editing creates a transcendent, almost lyrical experience for the viewer.

It is also widely considered to be the most dangerous documentary ever made, opening on a car careening across the Siberian lake before abruptly penetrating and disappearing into the ice.  Two of the three inside the car free themselves as Kossakovsky and crew race to the scene to help only to find the ice was already melting underneath them, the prospect of the crew going down into the frozen water growing very real for them too.  As they try to break through while a survivor wails in despair, the camera floats away looking down at glaciers and sharp ice patches as the sound of an avalanche floods the soundtrack.  Much of Aquarela structurally is like this, weaving and waving from quiet dull calm to an angry and hyper roar when water amid oceans and tropical storms show off their fiercest might.
Also seeping through the waves and rain is a heavy-metal score by Apocalyptica (Finnish composer Eicca Toppinen) which evokes everything from Penderecki-esque notes of stark terror to poignant violin vibes echoing the mournful sounds of the Kronos Quartet.  Despite the presence of the soundtrack, however, the audiovisual experience of receiving Aquarela is almost completely unfettered and left up to the audience to interpret how to process the cinematic Tsunamis coming their way.  For something as awesome and boringly ordinary as water let alone a film devoted to it for two hours spanning the globe, you’ve simply never seen, heard or felt a movie like this before neither in fiction or nonfiction pieces.  For once, like the tires and feet cracking through the melting ice, Aquarela and Kossakovsky have broken new ground.

Billed as ‘The Ultimate Theatrical Experience’ replete with ‘High Frame Rate’ and ‘Dolby Atmos’ in select cities, the $2.6 million pioneering Aquarela is the kind of event movie that comes around once in a lifetime, a film that forces you to stop and ponder the world you’re living in largely surrounded by water.  We depend on water for life and yet it has the chilly unfeeling capacity to bring death in great numbers.  Aquarela doesn’t have the answers regarding this symbiotic relationship between our world and the next but it brings the vessel of water that much closer under the microscopic camera’s eye than ever before. 
Watching Aquarela you feel as helpless as the crew who somehow or another turned over ravishing, astonishing images of water that dazzle and confound the eyes.  For some, the subject and film’s shapelessness will frustrate if not bore outright while others expecting it to reach for grandiose meaning will, no pun intended, find their hands closing on water.  And yet in this manner the film for others becomes a fabulous one-of-a-kind experience we invariably absorb like cinematic sponges.  

Not everyone will take to this project nor should they as its boldness helps to set itself apart from the pack, a film that crashes all around the viewer while also letting us occasionally swim through if not walk upon its waters.  There’s no two ways to assess Aquarela but as far as a nonfiction film tackling the nature and possibly even the personality of water as a being we continue to try and learn from and respect its rivers, this brings us closer into the idea of water from top to bottom perhaps than simply immersing yourself in it physically. 

--Andrew Kotwicki