«DamNation was a challenge to bring to life. It is an issue based film and the issue is complex. There are over 85,000 dams in the US and it was daunting to pick out just a few to focus on in the film. Each dam could have its own film. In the end, it was the characters that we found that really help to shape the direction and focus of the film».
In this way Travis Rummel, co-director with Ben Knight, introduces “DamNation“, documentary that tells some dams’ removal in US. Ninety-nine years after Olympic National Park’s Elwha River was illegally dammed, wild Chinook salmon still instinctively gather at the foot of the lower dam as if they sense a change in the current. Upstream, the usual low rumble of antique turbines generating electricity has faded, and the piercing sound of an excavator-mounted jackhammer reverberates off the 210-foot tall Glines Canyon Dam. De-construction crews have begun the painstaking process of chipping away at its mossy, concave facade. This moment marks the beginning of the largest dam removal in US history, unveiling the best opportunity for wild salmon recovery in the country.
DamNation, throughout a collection of impassioned voices from the people entrenched on both sides of this divisive issue, presents a dynamic perspective on Man’s attempt to harness and control the power of water at the expense of nature.
A little known issue as Rummel himself stresses: «With DamNation we were challenged with creating a documentary about a complex subject most people even within the environmental movement have not given much consideration. We knew we had to grab the audience’s attention from the beginning and never let it go throughout the film, but we also had to communicate the historical context of dams in US, the evolving environmental and social costs of dams and show the power of dam removal as it was happening».
Not just a documentary pointing to the belly of the spectators with stunning, touching or weepy images, but showing a real depth on a matter that may encounter skepticism. And in fact Rummel does not deny his initial concerns.
«Back in 2010, Ben and I were approached by Yvon Chouinard and Matt Stoecker [the producers ed.] about making a film about dam removal. Yvon and Matt are ardent dam busters and they had been tracking several large dam removal projects that were slated to begin in 2011. They realized it was an opportune moment to harness the momentum of these large scale removals on both coasts with a film. At first, Ben and I were incredibly wary of taking on the subject. We did not know much about the dams and the thought of a feature documentary on inanimate concrete walls was daunting. Once we committed to the project we initially stayed somewhat skeptical of the topic which in the end helped to make the film more approachable for the audience».
This is the focus of the film in its hour and a half: what are the real effects of dams on our environment? And its strength is changing points of view.
The film charts the change in public perception about dams over the past 50 years, when people first thought dams were good, to the present day, when obsolete dams are being removed to facilitate healthier watersheds and renew spawning grounds for fish.
To attract the audience were the characters, among them the same Ben Knight, one of the directors.
«We knew DamNation needed to be approachable yet bold. We needed to win over the audiences with a topic most were unfamiliar with. When we went into the edit, we had many disparate scenes and issues we needed to address but we were lacking a narrative thread to tie them all together. It quickly became evident that Ben was going to have to become a character in the film through his narration and what little footage we had shot of him along the way. We were hopeful that Ben’s arc as a skeptic of dam removal to believer would mirror the audience’s experience in watching the film».
And indeed, the documentary has achieved its goal to interest the public, as the numerous awards demonstrate. Among them “Peoples Choice” and “Best Feature Film” at the Green Film Festival in Seoul 2014 and “Best Feature Award” at San Francisco Green Film Festival 2014.
The film is definitely a stimulus to start to focus on the need to give back to nature what we took with concrete constructions, often old and even unused. An environmental documentary that leaves a real hope. «It was a pleasure to make a hopeful environmental film. Most environmental films leave you feeling depressed and devoid of hope for the future. The nice thing with dam removal is that it really works and works quickly. To see the amount of change on the Elwha and White Salmon Rivers within the time we spent filming DamNation was impressive. I think the pace of change and return of fish on newly free flowing rivers really helps audiences to imagine their local rivers running free again».