by Bang Yan Ma
3.8 million years ago the first rains created the oceans that spread themselves across a primordial Earth, establishing itself as one of the oldest most primeval attributes of our planet. It birthed life upon the planet through single-celled organisms, stood by through the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, and is witnessing the evolution of hominins into modern humans. The Anthropocene Epoch, the most recent geological epoch, designates the beginning of which humans had started to have a significant impact on the planet, both positive or negative. Domestication, the Holocene Extinction, Nuclear Fission, Climate Change, are all major impacts that humans have had on the planet, and although impressive, are nothing compared to the planet-wide mass extinction events that nature has forced upon the planet.
This essay will describe how the film Aquarela demonstrates the insignificancy of the Anthropocene and humanism when compared to the overall history and power of nature and water. The movie depicts water as the main character, showing how it’s different forms react and behave around the world, from melting ice sheets, to tropical storms to million-year-old waterfalls. The film displays the beauty and strength of water, but also how it’s negatively impacted by increased human intervention. Through the use of visual cinema, which arguably the greatest and most concise form of communication, it reiterates the fragility of humans, how nature will still be here long after humans have caused their own extinction, and overall the narcissism of human nature. We see ourselves as the apex of beings, yet so many are oblivious or negligent to our impact on the Earth and how she will respond. This is shown through the story (or lack thereof), location of the sets, type of shots, and raw and real nature of the film, allowing the audience to have an intimate relationship with the protagonist of the film, Water.
2. The Impact of the Anthropocene Epoch and its Impact on Us
The cinematography of the film allows itself to act as both a portal to show viewers at home climate change’s effect all over the world, while also being a mirror for which they can reflect on their own actions and behaviors. It speaks to the impact of human intervention into the natural order of the world, and subsequently mother nature’s response to us plaguing the Earth. The film begins with various wide shots of a vast frigid landscape (Aquarela 00:58:00) where a rescue team can be seen retrieving submerged cars from beneath the frozen lake’s surface. In the background, a constant, ominous rumbling and crackling can be heard, which is the sound of ice melting and cracking. The wide shot displays the vastness of the landscape in comparison to the people, while the sound alludes to a much larger and imminent threat of the entire lake melting. As we see the car being pulled from the frozen depth (Aquarela 00:12:26) we don’t know if the people inside ever made it out of the car, if they were trapped in their car as a frozen tomb, or if they escaped before hypothermia hit. Suddenly the film cuts away to show a far wide shot showing a car racing across the frozen lake before unexpectedly falling through the ice (Aquarela 00:15:48). The cut to the mid-range shot of the despair of the people that escaped from the fallen car and the cries of the survivors as the rescuers try to save the remaining people in the car rings through the entire scene, conveying and driving home the sorrow and pain of the people’s whose lives were changed in a split second. The entire sequence of scenes shows the dichotomy of the impact of humans on climate change and how it impacts us. It is a frightful metaphor for fossil fuel usage in humanity and its impact on the environment that seems too good to be true. Displaying the almost irrelevancy of a human in comparison to the grandiose. Larger than life frozen lake.
This idea is displayed again when it shows wide shots of glaciers breaking apart and falling into the icy ocean below, with the sound of a metal guitar in the background (Aquarela 00:29:25), creating an intense and dramatic scene that aims to demonstrate the raw physical power of nature as well as the depicting tangible and easily understandable impacts of climate change. The impacts of climate change are reiterated as the next scene depicts a fast-flowing river of freshly melted glacier water flowing through an eroded channel of ice into the vast open ocean (Aquarela 00:38:19). The close-up shot of the river allows the viewer to get a sense of how much water is being melted and then the pan of the open ocean shows the subsequent impact of it, one of the greatest threats to modern human society that climate change has to offer, rising sea levels. This idea is further reinforced by Effects of Climate Change Across Ocean Regions in which it details how the increase in global temperature has not only led to the melting of polar ice caps but also the subsequent rising sea levels and increased acidity and temperature of the water, endangering coastal cities around the world and threatening the very balance of the global ecosystem of flora and fauna (Hoegh-Guldberg and S. Poloczanska). Aquarela allows the viewers to unravel this message of impending doom through the carefully strung together scenes of melting ice and rapid flowing ocean, creating a collage of the various impacts of climate change and the Anthropocene epoch. Then through the use of scarce human figures and specific imagery paints a picture of how climate change affects us.
3. The Narcissism of Human Nature
It is a scary thing to think about, climate change, rising sea levels destroying coastal buildings, the complete collapse of fishing industries, and the subsequent economical depressions that follow. However, with the demise of the human world as we know it on the visible horizon, it is quite honestly incredible that so many people are willfully ignorant or simply negligent of this fact. From the normal person to the corporate heads, the narcissism of human nature has allowed us to view ourselves as the apex predator of all apex predators, one in which our technological advances propel us beyond the bounds of mother nature, that in the end, it will be humans left standing. However, this can not be more wrong. As depicted in Aquarela, nature has been through numerous mass extinction events and the tiny speck that is human existence is microscopic in comparison to the 4.5 billion-year-old history of the Earth. These primordial and imposing force of water is displayed when the film cuts to a wide shot of rolling ocean waves, without a sense of scale in the scene it’s impossible to decipher if these waves are 1m tall or 50m (Aquarela 01:01:40). The metal background music and dim light in the scene cast a feeling of despair for the human subjects in the scene on their sailing rig, back and forth shots of the humans, and the waves intensify the tension and instill a sense of inevitably in the viewer. This sequence is a great depiction of how naive and foolish the narcissism of human nature is.
This idea is displayed again when the film cuts away from the chaotic ocean waves to the just as dramatic scene of a hurricane in Florida (Aquarela 01:12:26). As the camera slowly rolls through the windswept streets of Miami, the sounds of the disaster siren being drowned out by running water and falling rain paint a dramatic and dangerous view of the power of mother nature are second to none. The following scene of a collapsed damn works in tangent with the previous scene, conveying to the viewers that even with all of the technological advances of the Anthropocene Epoch, they are nothing in the face of nature’s and by association, water’s full wrath.
The final sequence of scenes in the film transitions from the bleak hurricane scene to Angel Falls in Venezuela, showing the falls in all of their glory (Aquarela 01:20:31). The slow vertical pan of the falls emphasizes the fact that the falls are the tallest in the world. Waterfalls as subject matter inherently convey the timelessness of nature, as they are formed through erosion through eons of water movement. This scene speaks not only to the power of nature but also how meaningless human history is in comparison to the history of the Earth and water. As it was stated by Sean Cubitt in Ecopolitics in Cinema: “Certainly the history of consciousness can be traced as a history of communication: human-to-human, and human-to-world” (Tzioumakis and Molloy). This is impressive as a standalone but when comparing human consciousness and history to the vastness of the 3.8 million-year-old history of water it pales in comparison. All in all these scenes respond to the nativism and narcissism of human nature by demonstrating that humans are actually rather insignificant. Nature has been here for a long time and will be here or long after humans have gone. As it was said in Projecting Politics “Documentaries are also inherently propagandistic, in that they seek to convince the audience of some “truth.” They can even support activism by educating viewers on a particular, often politically charged topic and urging a specific form of action to take”(Haas et al.). Through the use of these realistic and raw scenes of the different workings of nature through the documentary genre, the film exposes the audience to the hard reality of the consequences of the actions of humanity.
One of the constants throughout all of our lives, and the entire Anthropocene epoch has been water, and it will very likely still be here when humans go extinct. Aquarela is a film that addresses the global impacts of human nature on the environment, how climate change, in turn, impacts modern society, as well as responds to the narcissistic human nature. The use of wide shots and slow pans alludes to the primordial and massive nature of water and the use of far shots with human subjects in the frame shows physical and metaphorical differences between humans and nature.
Haas, Elizabeth, et al. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Routledge, Taylor Et Francis Group, 2015.
Hoegh-Guldberg, Ove, and Elvira S. Poloczanska, editors. “Effects of Climate Change Across Ocean Regions.” Frontiers Research Topics, 2018, doi:10.3389/978-2-88945-502-7.
Tzioumakis, Yannis, and Claire Molloy. The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2016, ProQuest Ebook Central , ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/reader.action?docID=4579017.
Kossakovsky, Viktor, director. Aquarela. Ma.Ja.De Filmproduktion, 2018.