The synopsis of the new documentary Aquarela — “From massive waves to melting ice, filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky travels around the world to capture stunning images of the beauty and raw power of water” — both undersells and oversells what the film actually contains. There certainly is a lot of water in different forms, but what the film doesn’t contain is much clarity.
Kossakovsky starts the film on what the press notes say is Russia’s Lake Baikal, but you wouldn’t know it because he provides no location information. He proceeds to then show an excruciating 15-20 minute segment of either people driving on the precariously thin ice or other people attempting to rescue those foolhardy souls after their cars fall through the ice.
The deliberate nature of the segment portends the methodical nature of the film as a whole. Other segments show glaciers calving, a flooded community in an unnamed Latin American country, a hurricane in what appears to be Miami, a flooding of a spillway, and a crew of a boat trying to control it during a storm.
Even with very little dialogue or graphics to guide you, it’s obvious that the throughline of the film is climate change. In every instance, water or ice is shown to be even more powerful and destructive than we already know it to be, and the results are scary. Humans are shown to be helpless against the unrelenting nature of it, and the film offers no answers.
However, the method which Kossakovsky uses in his filmmaking led to one of the most frustrating and assaulting movie experiences of my life. At seemingly random moments, he inserts loud heavy metal music, a soundtrack that rarely fits the imagery being shown on screen. Several of the extended segments contain nothing but the overwhelming sound of water rushing or waves crashing, audio that almost feels like water torture after a minute or two.
It’s a test of endurance for the viewer, and perhaps that’s the point. What it’s not is entertaining, or even awe-inspiring, in the slightest. It’s like Terrence Malick, who’s known for his ponderous movies, made a nature documentary. Many shots are in close-up, giving viewers no idea what they’re looking at, demonstrating the power of water without ever giving context.
And I haven’t even mentioned the technical aspect of the film, which was shot at 96 frames per second (the normal frame rate is 24 fps). Perhaps that’s something of interest for a certain segment of viewers, but because of the way Kossakovsky framed many of his shots, the impact of higher quality visuals was often negated.
Documentaries can often be infuriating, usually because they shine a light on injustice or other controversial subject matter. Aquarela is one of the rare films that may cause a sharp divide because of how the visuals and sounds attack the viewer at every turn.
Aquarela screens at the Modern Art Museum on Fort Worth seven times, September 13-15.