Director: Travis Rummel & Ben Knight
Cinematographer: Ben Knight, Travis Rummel, & Matt Stoecker
by Jon Cvack
Not to be confused with Bela Tarr’s film, DamNation was produced by Patagonia and could take a strong lesson in objective reporting. The premise is pretty interesting in that since the New Deal over 75,000 dams have been built in the United States. That number is absolutely staggering, both for the impact it has on the ecosystem and for the incredible feat in constructing so many in only about seventy years (that’s about 1000 dams a year, or three a day; so they say). The problem is that the film spends very little time in describing why these dams are so disastrous.
There are three issues throughout the film - they deracinated Native American lands; they have destroyed rich archeological and natural sights; and they have really taken a toll on local Salmon populations that can no longer swim upstream, adversely affecting local industries that depended upon them.
Going in order, I completely agree and understand the Native American anger toward a government that had, once again, destroyed their culture and displaced their community, contributing to a very long, terrifying, and largely ignored tradition of the American government completely fucking over Native Americans, which is only a slight improvement over the mass genocide the government carried out a century prior.
Secondly, the filmmakers highlight an incredibly rich and relatively unexplored area of ancient tribes, where countless objects meant for museums were left abandoned until a trio of young explorers discovered them. The only proof left of their existence is some 8mm film . To think that these objects were undiscovered until about fifty years ago - again, objects from ancient times - really demonstrates our country’s youth. To avoid going too far out there, it’s when I see moments like this that I grasp how dangerous it is to assume that America will always be a perfect place or that we're somehow in a perfect culmination of history. Our country is so young that your grandfather could have discovered an ancient abandoned village that has been untouched since the tribe lived there tens of thousands of years ago.
Aside from that tangential wake up call, is that the government came in and decided to flood the entire area before a proper archeological team could excavate the property. Now, to be fair - 1) they might have done this before the flooding, as the filmmakers never let us know, and 2) teams probably could and already might have dived down to explore the site and retrieve whatever’s valuable. Or maybe the entire site was destroyed during construction. There was no counter this example and I’d bet there’s more information than they provide.
This brings us to the last issue, regarding the destruction of Salmon populations due to their inability to swim upriver. I had never thought about a dam’s ability to impede human travel and the film does provide a pretty good scene where the narrator and another kayaker try to go through the channel and transfer upriver through the locks rather than taking their gear out of the water and walking it down. The tension is built up a bit, but to see a government official threatening their arrest, especially under suspicion of terrorism, brings me back to the above point, in which aside from the terrible things our government did to Native tribes in the past, are the strange moments like this where our country looks like a police state. The guard basically states that federal law trumps their state rights to ride kayaks through the locks. I get that it’s not really that big of a deal to take your kayak out of the river, but to hear that it’s for reasons of terrorism is kind of disconcerting.
When I thought about the issue and why it was wrong, the best I could come up with is that rivers provided a natural route of travel. To impede upon that seems wrong. Is it that big of a deal to have to take your kayaks out in order to provide natural power to hundreds, if not millions of people? I’m torn.
Worse are the Salmon, who because of these wild obstructions are no longer able to get upriver. Miraculously, regardless of impediment, every year a few Salmon some way, some how make it through dammed up channels. I believe the number one was tossed around, which may not seem a lot, but when you see these dams you understand how crazy even a single salmon making the journey really is. Unfortunately, they didn’t explain the reason Salmon swim upriver, instead offering a very spiritual and hippie dippie explanation which is a shame because the actual reason is crazy. In brief - Salmon live in the ocean, then swim upriver, struggling against rapid currents and severe obstructions to lay their offspring on a gravel bed, to then die, and offer their bodies as food for the local animals (namely, bears). The eggs then hatch, the babies swim down river and out into the ocean, to then grow up and repeat the mission. That’s one of the most poetic life journeys I’ve ever read about.
The issue with the Salmon being unable to swim upriver is that, even with Salmon farms, it’s endangering the species, though again, we don’t get to know what makes these farms bad or what useful purpose they might be serving. I understand that dams are disrupting the ecosystem and the Salmon paths are suffering.
Aside from what I mentioned, my biggest issue is the filmmakers' complete failure to explore why dams might be useful at all. They include individuals who are against shutting down dams, but it’s often portrayed as due to their jobs, with the local pro-dam advocates shown as your average rural Republican farmer, angry at the hippies. Around Los Angeles, water cutbacks have enraged farmers. They have to conserve more water, and abusing that results in fines, which affects their growth, so they pay the fines and then have to raise the price of crops, or they don’t grow anything and the limited supply will drive up the demand and also raise prices.
In the case of dams, I assume it’s a similar issue, both with providing an ample water supply, or generating power. I would have liked to know what happened to the few big dams in Oregon that got knocked down and what those who were depending on them experienced. I wonder if their farms were ruined, or if electricity costs went up, businesses left, or food prices rose. I'm especially in the last point, as it would conflict with anti-dammers overall politics, in that, without dams, lower class families would have less access to fruits and vegetables since they’re getting more expensive. I don’t mind focusing on all the terrible things about dams, I just didn’t hear a fair assessment of the other side. These are complex issues and the documentary’s agenda was very clear. Unfortunately, it pushes the film out of journalism and into activism. At the end of the film, I don’t know any of the good. I just know some of the bad.
BELOW: A conversation with filmmakers Ben Knight, Travis Rummel, and Matt Stoecke (beginning at 33:00)
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