Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

The spiritual significance of water

ECOLOGY / Fresh from a competition screening at DOK Leipzig, Violeta Paus' short film is a haunting and lyrical look at water pollution and deprivation.

This is a strange, oddly affecting, and hauntingly beautiful film with little or no precise context to explain the reasons why water sources in Chile are so polluted, drained, scarce or poisoned, other than the lived experience of three women representing the three key ecological threats to safe, abundant water: pollution by industrial process; shortages caused by other industrial developments, and toxic runoffs from massive waste dumps.

The film opens with the sound of breathing and angelic choirs before a three-way vertically split screen appears with three women staring intently into camera: a young woman, a middle-aged woman, and an older woman – her sun creased features reflective of a hard life spent on a smallholding where groundwater has so far diminished that, we later learn, her goats are dying.

Not the usual

The setup marks this as not your usual environmental film. There are no politics or grand global statements. Ecological threats are not shown through beautiful pictures of pristine environments that face a dire future. The loss is already a lived experience. By focusing on the microcosmic, intimate experience of each character, the cracked and caked dried up river bed, a dripping tap, a houseplant covered in toxic sulfur dust, and the vast rubbish dump tumbling down the side of an arid Chilean hillside, speak volumes.

The spiritual significance of water is underscored by split-screen – like a medieval iconostasis – with steady breathing and arias. But the director never pushes this aspect further – it is there as an (almost) silent witness to the damage we do to the natural world, to the disease and death we are bringing to human beings by our lack of respect of something as fundamental to existence as water.

We don’t know who these women are; we are not meant to. They represent the everywoman – their stories are ours.

«There’s no water. If there’s no water how can we live? How can our animals graze if there is no grass?» asks the elder woman. It is less a plaintiff cry than a resigned rhetorical question.

Water Silhouettes-Violeta Paus-ChileDoc
Water Silhouettes, a film by Violeta Paus

The sacrifice zone

The youngest, who lives in what she calls «the sacrifice zone» close to a factory using sulphuric acid to extract rare metals from ore – is also presented passively: «Living in a sacrifice zone, especially as a woman is complicated. Pollutants accumulate in your body, in your reproductive cells, and when you get pregnant it comes with your kids – respiratory disorders, cognitive disorders. Children are dying at three months because of respiratory disorders.»

The middle-aged woman – who is revealed as a garbage recycler, picking across the mountains of waste to do her tiny bit to reduce and recycle – remarks: «Massive waste has a massive impact. Garbage dumped always causes problems for us, for the groundwater or for fire risk. It puts disease into the water and air.»

it is there as an (almost) silent witness to the damage we do to the natural world

Quiet work

The juxtaposition between the pain and filth and the profoundly beautiful images of that same waste or toxic dust that falls when the factory emits clouds of polluting smoke (most often at 3 am we are told) is left to do its quiet work.

There is a cumulative effect in this short film. No manager of any polluting plant is confronted. No local politician put on the spot. Just the experience of three women experiencing what it means to live at the advancing edge of the Anthropocene era’s impact on the human race and the planet we fondly hope will continue to sustain us.

But for that to happen, Water Silhouettes suggests, we must sustain the planet.

The director leaves us with a tiny slither of hope via her creative sound design: as the film closes the breathing stops and only those angelic choirs are to be heard. After a lengthy pause, it begins again. We must hope that we start to work with nature on breathing and breathing out before it is too late.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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