Environmental Activism Has Never Looked So Good: “DamNation”

May 7, 2014

Environmental Activism Has Never Looked So Good: “DamNation”

DamNation, the new documentary from Patagonia that takes a close-up look at the changing attitude toward dams in the U.S., has people everywhere buzzing. The film debuted at South by Southwest, where it took home the Audience Choice Award, and then followed that up with top honors at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C.  Is this environmental activism at its finest?  We had to see for ourselves.

DamNation Doesn’t Disappoint

In the film’s opening minutes, director and narrator Ben Knight reveals how clueless he was about dams before filming DamNation.  And that right there might be why the film is so effective.

“It was kind of embarrassing how little I knew about dams before working on this film. Dams don’t just blend in as part of the landscape to me anymore. Knowing what I know now, it’s impossible for me to look at dams the same way as I did a few years ago, or even rivers for that matter.”

Now removed Elwha Dam, Olympic National Park - Photo: Ben Knight

Together with director and producer Travis Rummel, Knight takes a topic that most of us never think about, and makes us care.  Through storytelling, beautiful shooting and a few shenanigans here and there, DamNation is not a hard-hitting expose, rather it’s a rousing glimpse at what the future could look like for our wild rivers if we rethink some of our country’s dams.

To highlight this, the filmmakers tell the story of the Elwha Dam in Olympic National Park, which in 2011 became the largest dam removal project in history. Today, the dam is completely gone and the restoration of a thriving salmon population is well underway.  But if the momentum for dam removal was moving full speed ahead there wouldn’t be a need for this film.  That’s why Knight and Rummel also make sure to touch on mistakes of the past, weaving in imagery and stories from some of the beautiful places that have been lost by dams, like Glen Canyon, which now lies underneath Lake Powell.

“Neither you nor I, nor anyone else, knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure. When we began to find out it was too late.” ~David Brower, Founder of the Sierra Club

Glen Canyon Dam - Photo: Ben Knight

The river community knows all too well what was lost when the Glen Canyon Dam was built on the Colorado River, drowning what was believed to be one of the most beautiful canyons in the world.  But for those who haven’t had the benefit of hearing old-time river runners talk about this “Eden” and what it was like, DamNation will give you that. The filmmakers tracked down author and activist Katie Lee who was among the few who rafted the full length of the canyon before it was gone.  Her spunky and entertaining interview almost steals the show, but doesn’t overshadow the more important message here…that Glen Canyon was a place we lost because nobody knew it was there.

So, is DamNation environmental activism at its finest?  Absolutely.  Because as the film does well to point out on several occasions: we won’t save what we don’t know. And now we know.

Take action and ask President Obama to stand up for rivers by removing obsolete dams. Just look at the possibility…

White Salmon River Restoration - Photo: Ben Knight

Want to See DamNation?

DamNation opens for a limited theatrical release in New York and Portland, Ore. on May 9, and debuts in Los Angeles on May 16. On June 5, the film will be screened for free at most of Patagonia’s 30 retail outlets.  Following the in-store screenings, DVDs will be available for $24.99 (or $29.99 on Blu-ray), and beginning June 6, you can catch “DamNation” online at Vimeo for $9.99.

Photos courtesy of DamNation

 

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Cari Morgan
Cari Morgan is O.A.R.S.' Communications Specialist (a.k.a. the voice of O.A.R.S.). She lives and plays in the Sierra Foothills.