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WALKING ON WATER (2018) review

May 27, 2019



produced by: Izabella Tzenkova and Valeria Giampietro
directed by: Andrey M. Paounov
rated: not rated 
runtime: 105 min.
U.S. release date: May 24, 2019 (limited) 


What has always been most striking about the environmental works of art from Bulgarian artist Christo was how they looked when completed. His art, with wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude has always augmented the planet’s landscape in a curious and captivating manner. Whether it was the Running Fence that extended Northern California hills in 1976 or The Gates that weaved through Central Park in New York City in 2005, the couple’s installation projects provided viewers with a different way to view what familiar terrain. However, there has always been the question as to how these works of art were completed and while “Walking on Water” is not the first documentary to chronicle a project of Christo, it is the first one to catch up with artist on a new project, a decade after the death of his wife.

This film documents what transpired in 2016, when a white-haired, 85-year-old Christo embarked on creating a series of walkways installed on Lake Iseo, near Brescia, Italy. His ambitious goal envisioned a path in which visitors would walk on water, or at least experience the sensation of such an act. These walkways would extend from the surface off the village of Sulzano and stretch out to the islands of Monte Isola and San Paolo. It’s a concept he and his wife had conceived back in 1970, with the idea that buoyant polyethylene cubes (200,000 in total) covered in 7,000 square feet of bright golden fabric and forming a walkway that would move with the waves. Like many of their installations, the The Floating Piers would offer visitors something to participate in while offering something they’ve never experienced before.




Obviously, there’s much to be considered with such an endeavor, which is why documentaries on Christo’s work have been made. After viewers are awestruck with the end result product, the next immediate thoughts are typically followed by questions regarding how it all got made. There’s all the logistics and potential dangers (like the fact that the walkway has no railings) to be considered as well as the materials and permits needed. The artistic process on these large-scale, interactive installations have always encountered life’s realties, which lends itself to certain degrees of inevitable frustration and unintentional hilarity.

While much of Christo’s process has been covered in other documentaries, it soon becomes clear that director Andrey Paounov is capturing Christo at a very different and curious time in his life and career. “Walking on Water” finds the artist without his wife as a collaborator and in what is typically known as the twilight of one’s years, but don’t tell him that. If this is a viewer’s first exposure to Christo, he could easily come across as a stubborn and belligerent octogenarian. The thing is, he’s kind of always been that way, but it would’ve been more interesting to see Paounov involve the artist in the film, rather than simply follow him, in order to present a more fully-realized representation of who he is and what he’s all about.




The journey here is indeed an intimate one, as we watch Christo’s vision develop from drawings to tactile construction, yet much of the screen time finds the artist emphatically arguing and yelling with his collaborators. As the film opens, there is three months until the project opens and much of what we see is an elderly man who is confounded by technology. He can’t quite figure out the color resolution on the computer screen and is seen shouting at the participants on the other end of his video conference call. It seems like much of this is played for laughs, but instead it just feels like we’re supposed to chuckle at this old man. That’s something that is weaved throughout the rest of the film, which kind of rubbed me the wrong way. It’s probably not the director’s intent, but when much of what we see and hear are frustrated yelling and obscene shouting (not just from Christo, but also his collaborators), the viewing experience become repetitive and tiring.

There are moments where we get to observe Christo as someone other than a frustrated artist, allowing us to get an idea of what fuels his passion, but alas, these moments are all too brief. When we see him engage with a group of schoolchildren as he presents his work to them, it is great to see the large span between generations interact, but once again Paounov has to include the “frustrated old man” bit as Christo is seen flummoxed by how to use a large screen projection of his work. When his Floating Piers project is finally about to open, there are more arguments with local Italian officials as concern for the sheer volume of anticipated visitors is considered, but again, what we get is more yelling and shouting.




For a more satisfying and fascination look at the artistic process, I recommend “Christo’s Valley Curtain” (1974), a 28-minute documentary short from Albert and David Maysles (known for “Grey Gardens” and “Gimme Shelter”), which I recall watching in art school. The groundbreaking documentarians went on to make other films that chronicled Christo and Jeannne-Claude’s artistic process up until 2007’s “The Gates”, which Albert (who died in 2015) helmed with Antonio Ferrera, after his brother David died in 1987. Sure, the documentaries filmed by the Maysles brothers captured a younger and different Christo, but the tone was much more pastoral and respectful of the artist and his approach to his work and life.

Throughout its 16-day run in June of 2016, the Floating Piers project was experienced by 1.2 million visitors. So, it seems crazy yet fitting that after that run of dates all materials were removed and recycled.  You can conceptualize these projects, but there’s a lot of drama before anyone can stand aside them, or in this case, on top of it.

Regardless of my ultimate dissatisfaction with the tonal approach to “Walking on Water”, there’s no doubt Paounov offers some impressive and flat-out breathtaking images of the project in its final form. Considering the editing process alone took over a year to sort through 750 hours of footage, it goes without saying the work that went into the film.  The aerial photography incorporated here really captures the beauty and impressive scale of Christo’s vision, even if we have to suffer through all of this “frustrated old man” footage.







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