Voyage of discovery through Great Lakes

Waterlife Interactive is an award-winning website designed to accompany Waterlife, the documentary which explores the fragile lives of and around the North American Great Lakes

By Rosie Lavan


SHORT STORY SYNOPSIS: Waterlife tells the story of the North American Great Lakes through profiling some of the people who rely on them, and from the perspectives of the creatures and elements encountered on the journey from Lake Superior in the north, via the heart of Chicago, to the Atlantic Ocean. Waterlife Interactive, the companion website, enables users to discover these stories and the film’s themes.

FORMAT: 107’ feature; interactive website

PRODUCTION COMPANIES: National Film Board of Canada; Primitive Entertainment

STATUS: Completed


AWARDS: Toyota Earth Grand Prize 2010, Tokyo International Film Festival; 2010 Webby award for Online Film and Video; 2010 SXSW Interactive Activism Award; BaKaFORUM City of Karlsruhe Prize 2010 for Multimedia Education, Science and Society; 2009 Canadian New Media Award for Best Cross Platform Project; 2009 Online Journalism Awards Multimedia Feature Presentation; Hotdocs 2009 Special Jury Prize – Canadian Feature


Waterlife, a joint venture by the National Film Board of Canada and the Toronto-based production company Primitive Entertainment, brings the Great Lakes beautifully and evocatively to life. The documentary is, at heart, an appeal to protect this unique natural resource, which holds 20 per cent of the world’s surface fresh water and constitutes its third largest industrial economy, but which faces myriad environmental, political, social and industrial threats.

Users navigate their way through the site via images or the ribbon of blue bars at the bottom of the screen

The film was written and directed by Kevin McMahon, who has explored environmental themes in his previous work: The Falls (1990), for example, which looked at the toxic secrets of Niagara, and Cod: The Fish that Changed the World (2000). Among the executive producers of Waterlife was Mark Achbar, whose previous work includes The Corporation (2003), a controversial but hugely successful look at the dominant institution of our time. Waterlife is narrated by Gord Downie, of Canadian band The Tragically Hip, and its soundtrack features the music of, among others, Brian Eno, Sigur Rós, Philip Glass and The Allman Brothers.

Waterlife Interactive is the multi-award-winning website which was developed from the film.


Like the film it was designed to accompany, Waterlife Interactive is beautiful. It offers users different possibilities for exploring the story and the issues it raises, breaking down the content into various themes and presenting it in a number of ways.

On entering the website, the user is presented with a map of the five Great Lakes, made up of still images. Each image can be clicked on to begin the story it represents. Along the bottom of the screen, a ribbon of vertical bars undulates as the cursor is moved along, and each bar can be clicked on to enter a story. The content is streamed according to the themes covered in Waterlife which include different aspects of the Lakes, the homes and experiences of their inhabitants, the threats posed to this environment and the human implications of its damage and destruction. Every image on the map and bar in the ribbon bears a label which corresponds to one of these themes – examples include “politics”, “home”, “in you and me”, “industrial”, “invasive species”, “power” and “shipping”. A click on a bar or image opens further information about the particular topic: facts or quotes appear in text on the screen accompanied by footage, audio extracts from interviews or narration from the documentary.

Each image leads to corresponding footage, images and audio extracts from the documentary

Music from the film’s soundtrack plays in the background, and is identified at the bottom of the screen, alongside the familiar icons for the major social networks allowing users to share content from the site with friends and networks.

The website’s design grants the audience complete agency in discovering the story; it seems appropriate that it should encourage users to determine how they will make their journey through Waterlife, given that the makers cite “profound apathy” as one of the major threats faced by the Great Lakes.

The website also serves as a platform for campaigning activity, providing resources and information for community action, and users can arrange their own screenings of Waterlife.


Waterlife Interactive

Our Waterlife – explore the film at Primitive Entertainment

Primitive Entertainment

National Film Board of Canada


Mark Achbar and The Corporation



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One Response to “Voyage of discovery through Great Lakes”

  1. Jack Nolan says:

    Very very informative, thanks for clearing up lots of issues for me! :)

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