Life & Culture

New Film Aquarela Will Change the Way You See Water, Forever

Aquarela is an epic meditation on the levelling, life-giving power of water – here, director Victor Kossakovsky shares the story behind the film’s creation

It’s easy to imagine a world without people in Aquarela, the new film from Victor Kossakovsky. “A better world! A better world,” says the Russian director, explaining his decision to relegate people to a bit-part role in the film, an epic meditation on the levelling, life-giving power of water. “This planet belongs to water; we’re just here accidentally.”

Kossakovsky’s film flows from a simple, radical premise: “What would a film feel like if its main character was not human at all, but an element of nature?” Seven countries and two years in the making, it’s an incredible feat of filmmaking that turns an intrepid lens on raging hurricanes, towering ocean swells and gently bobbing icebergs. In one of its most indelible scenes, thunderous cracks split the eerie calm of the Greenland coast as gigantic ice shelves go crashing into the sea. It’s a terrifying spectacle – the sound of old gods falling as heads of state squabble over emissions and global temperatures continue to rise – and yet, as he describes it, Kossakovsky is not here to lecture us about climate change. Instead, his film was conceived in part as a response to documentaries about water full of talking heads explaining its significance, and precious little of the actual wet stuff. For Kossakovsky, it’s a problem that calls into question the very nature of documentary-making.

“If you ask me the main question with documentaries today is what is a documentary?” says the director, an energetic presence more given to philosophical musings than Bear Grylls-style tales of survival on the high seas. “Is it something that provides some knowledge? Is it something which gives you some feelings? In cinema, most critics write about content – this is about social problems or whatever – but art is not just about content, art is about form. It’s a combination of the two. And this makes me think we’ve forgotten why cinema was born. Cinema was not born to teach you about problems, to tell you about global warming. Cinema was born as art, as part of culture.”

Naturally, Kossakovsky’s poetic approach to the film made it fiendishly difficult to finance. “People would ask me what the story was,” he explains, “and I would say, ‘it’s about water’ and they’d say, ‘who’s the character?’ and I’d say ‘water’, and they’d say, ‘yeah, yeah, but who’s the character’, and I’d say ‘water’!” Eventually, he hit upon another way to pitch it: “I said, ‘imagine this great actress – Meryl Streep, maybe, or this fantastic actress you have that plays the queen (Olivia Colman) – who can change her face in one minute from beautiful to horrible. This is what we are looking for, a character that can be everything.’ And water is like this, it can change so quickly. It gives you life and it can kill you.”

Aquarela opens on a moment of tragedy, as Kossakovsky and his crew capture the moment a car disappears under the ice of Lake Baikal in Siberia, drowning one of its passengers. The director made part of his previous film, ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!, here, and had been struck by something a local girl said about wanting to be reincarnated as water. He decided Aquarela should open in the exact same spot, but the incident forced him to reconsider how he went about making the film. “The situation became completely the opposite of what we wanted, because we wanted to film beauty, but we ended up filming a tragedy. We realised we either had to stop filming, or rethink it completely.”

It wasn’t the only time the film’s production was blown off course. En route to Greenland, the crew were caught up in a massive storm in the Atlantic, finally making landfall in Canada. It was a hairy moment for the director, who takes his crew’s safety very seriously, while maintaining a healthy equanimity towards death himself: “Of course, security is always my first concern. But I always say if I die, it’s fine, I’ve already had the chance to see so much amazing stuff on the planet, and meet so many amazing people.”

Besides being a work of awesome visual power – it was shot at an accelerated frame rate, allowing viewers lucky enough to see it as nature intended to savour every last drop – Aquarela is a triumph of technical ingenuity. Kossakovsky beams with pride when he describes the “brainpower” that went in to solving the shoot’s first problem – “You notice in my film there is not one drop of water on the lens? This should not be possible in a hurricane!” – though, like all good magicians, he remains tight-lipped on the secrets of his craft. “One of our goals was to make something where you will see shots you’ve never seen before,” says the director of his hopes for the documentary. (Revered cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – who won Oscars for this work on Gravity and The Revenant – reportedly sent him his hat upon seeing the film.)

Throughout Aquarela’s production, which also took in trips to Scotland, Portugal, the US, Mexico and Venezuela, Kossakovsky and his team had one goal: “to show people what they cannot see, which is why cinema exists”. When the director says that a world without people would be a better one, he’s not so much cheerleading for the destruction of humanity – he’s simply asking us to look again at nature, so we can better understand our position within it. By way of an example, Kossakovsky asks me if I’ve ever seen the sun rise. “Once or twice,” I reply, and he asks me how long it took. I have no idea, I tell him.

“Then you did not see it, never in your life!” he says with a chuckle. “So! Here’s what I suggest. Maybe tomorrow morning you’ll go out and you’ll look at the sunrise. Don’t look around, don’t look at your girlfriend, don’t look at your phone. Just look at the sunrise. It came for you.”

Aquarela is in cinemas now.