TELLURIDE – When Telluride filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel head to Austin, Tex., next month, DamNation, the culmination of three years of research, shooting, editing and just plain hard work will be showcased in the world premiere of their documentary at South by Southwest (SXSW), one of the biggest and innovative film, music and technology festivals in the country.
DamNation explores a shift in attitudes toward big dams in the U.S. Once a source of pride for their engineering, there is now a growing awareness that our survival is bound to the life and health of rivers. Around the country, as obsolete dams come down, rivers flow back to life. DamNation explores the rivers and landscapes that have been altered by dams as well as changing values in society, from the conquest and control of rivers to realizing human society is a part of nature.
The film, three years in making, has proven the duo’s most challenging yet rewarding project since Red Gold, which won the Audience Award at the 2008 Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. Both filmmakers couldn’t be more are excited about the world premiere of DamNation at South by Southwest on March 10.
“Our dream with DamNation was to premiere it at a high-level national festival. South by Southwest is as good as it gets,” Rummel said in an interview last week. “We could not be happier to have DamNation making its world premiere at SXSW. It really is a dream come true for us,” he said.
“I'm insanely proud that we were able to take a pretty obscure subject and turn it into a film that will move people,” Knight said. “I'm proud of everyone involved in making the film…the animators, musicians, graphic designers. It was one hell of a collaborative project, and it's exciting knowing that everyone involved is just as proud as I am to be a part of something important.”
The daunting project got its start after the film’s Executive Producer Yvon Chouinard and Producer Matt Stoecker saw Red Gold and Eastern Rises (both Felt Soul Media projects created by Knight and Rummel) and said they would be the right team to make a film about the dam removal movement in the U.S.
Stoecker, as a young man, witnessing migrating steelhead roadblocked at Stanford University’s Searsville Dam, recognized the destructive power a dam can have on a watershed. Now a fish biologist, Stoecker has spearheaded the removal of more than a dozen dams in the U.S.
Chouinard, founder/owner of Patagonia and a longtime dam activist, share’s Stoecker’s ambition to free rivers; the two men deemed Knight and Rummel the right filmmakers for what led to DamNation.
Knight pronounced it a “huge honor” to be asked to do the project, but was initially daunted by the scope of it. “We said no at first,” he said. “We just thought it would be too hard, honestly. Turns out we were right. It took us three years, twice as long as we planned for, but mainly because the story kept evolving.”
Rediscovered archival footage and pristine vintage photography in DamNation reveals a young archaeological “salvage” team working against time to recover priceless Anasazi artifacts before the flooding of Glen Canyon in 1958. Singer Katie Lee, now 94, among the last to experience the canyon, still recalls the vivid beauty of its walls; Floyd Dominy, the longtime Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who dammed Glen Canyon, exudes pride in his power to alter a landscape. From them to dam defender Congressman Tom McClintock to dam critic Bruce Babbitt (former Interior Secretary of the Interior), both sides of the issue are voiced in the film.
Other voices in DamNation weigh in, from the lobbied halls of U.S. capitals to those living lives close to the river. The film voices the outrage of a Nez Perce elder recalling the flooding of his people’s sacred falls and fishing ground along the Columbia in his youth, and the quiet testimony of a river keeper who has manned his post 12 hours a day for 13 years to count, observe and protect a Rogue River steelhead run. DamNation is not without its action heroes, including the activist/artist who two decades ago painted under moonlight a giant crack down the face of Hetch Hetchy's dam.
“We have a lot of unexpected storylines in DamNation,” Rummel said. “The human stories within DamNation get me really excited and help the audience to care about dams as an issue. Ben’s cinematography is also something I am really proud of. We saved for years to buy fancy new cameras for the project, and the visuals in DamNation are impressive.”
Along with the spectrum of voices the film gives to those on both sides of the issue, it shows how far (and how quickly) Americans’ attitudes have changed about dams – from the assumption 50 years ago that dams were always a power for good to the first successful attempt to remove a marginal dam 20 years ago on the Kennebec River.
“I hope people leave the film and think a little differently about the health of the rivers in their backyard,” Knight said. “I hope they think twice about that useless old piece-of-shit dam they drive by every day, and wonder if it's doing more harm than good.”
Beyond film festivals, DamNation is set for U.S. theatrical release in New York and select markets in April/May, coupled with a nine-city U.S. tour of regional film premieres. The U.S. tour includes stops in Seattle, Wash., Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Calif., Santa Monica, Calif., Denver, Washington, D.C., New York City and Portland, Maine.
Anyone interested in screening the film should ask local river restoration or recreation groups, clubs, church or school to contact the filmmakers at the website damnationfilm.com/contact/. Nonprofit and educational screenings begin May 1, 2014 with a goal to have over 500 screenings in 2014.
For more information, visit DamNationFilm.com.