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How Do You Film Water in Its Many Forms? Very, Very Carefully


While shooting “Aquarela,” his survey-symphony of water around the world, the Russian director Victor Kossakovsky said he woke up each day with the same thought: “O.K., nobody has died.”

For his new documentary, “Aquarela,” he used roiling seas, frozen lakes, collapsing icebergs and coral reefs the way an abstract expressionist might use oils — but at great risk. “You go to sleep, you don’t know if you’ll wake up,” he said. “Maybe an iceberg will crush you. Or a shipping container — ships lose containers and you can’t see them until suddenly a wave comes, 35 meters high, and inside it you see a container flying. And just pray it will go left or right.”

“Aquarela,” which visits Portugal, Canada, Greenland and Venezuela as well as Miami and Puerto Rico, is his answer to other documentarians. “So many focus only on content, issues, problems. I’m sorry — where is the cinema?” His environmental message, he added, is very simple: “Don’t be polite. It’s evil what we’re doing. If we all disappeared, the planet would breathe.”

Still, conveying that message did involve some danger. Here are several moments when the filmmaker, his crew and others found themselves in a tough spot:

“The ice on Lake Baikal is so transparent it looks like a huge aquarium. This is why I came there at the first place,” Kossakovsky said. What he found was a treacherous thaw. “The cracks of ice create unique patterns that draw you out. It is so beautiful that your curiosity makes you blind; you might easily fall through.” He did. “Fortunately, Sergey Kopylov — a great local man — was close to me at that moment and pulled me out of the cold water and literally saved my life. He was born at Baikal and knows how to read the ice.”

Others weren’t so lucky. “We swam out through the trunk,” one of many drivers who tries and fails to cross Lake Baikal says in the film. “Usually, it melts three weeks later than this.” In fact, as Kossakovsky was filming a car slipped through the pristine ice; one person was unable to reach the surface and died. “I came with an idea, but this was when I realized the film was going in a different direction.”

“There are many much more beautiful and dramatic coasts on our planet,” the director said, “but the Portuguese coast is special somehow. It really is the place where you can feel you’re at the edge of the world.” It was also perilous. “I was there three weeks, during the biggest storm in years. I was told, ‘It’s dangerous,’ so of course I wanted to film it.” The production was supposed to move from Portugal to Greenland. “But the storm blew us from Portugal to Canada,” the director said.

“Yes, it is me on the prow of the ship,” Kossakovsky said. “The man who is standing behind is Emile Peronard — our executive producer. The idea was to make a waltz of the icebergs. But it was a much more dramatic dance at the end.” The only time he used a drone, the director said, was to get an overview of glacial collapse. “I said we need at least one shot where we can see what it looks like from above. The iceberg in the film is 400 meters long. To be there is really crazy.”

Kossakovsky pays homage to another Russian director, Andre Tarkovsky, by toying with expectations and perceptions at Angel Falls in Venezuela: A rainbow, which viewers perceive to be in the sky, is actually at the foot of the falls. “You’re completely confused, and completely amazed by the images,” Kossakovsky said. While he shot from above, his cinematographer was dropped by helicopter on a vertical rock formation some distance away. “Angel Falls is a totally surreal place. Water is falling from over 1,000 meters and can’t reach the ground — at the halfway point it becomes cloud, mist, water dust.”


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