Front Row at the Movies
"DamNation" Gives a Damn
Exclusive Interview by Shirrel Rhoades
Ben Knight and Trevor Rummel met up at a small newspaper in Colorado, two guys who shared a passion for fly-fishing. As they fished the rivers and streams together, they developed a greater appreciation for the environment.
"We were very into rivers and fish," Rummel told me this week. "A natural extension was conservation."
For the past decade they have been working together, making films, and sharing their concerns about protecting our natural resources. "All the films we’ve done were about things we were passionate about."
For instance, in 2008, they directed a documentary called "Red Gold," a look at Alaska’s Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, the two most prolific sockeye salmon runs left in the world, now being threatened by large mining companies.
The result is an interesting -- and quite lyrical -- documentary titled "DamNation." It’s playing Monday night at the Tropic Cinema as the fourth film in the annual 4 Nights 4 Justice series.
4 Nights 4 Justice is made possible by a grant from Mike Dively Social Justice and Diversity Endowment, and others.
Producer-director Travis Rummel will be on hand to answer questions from the audience.
In "DamNation" we learn there are over 75,000 dams in the United States. "That’s like building one every day since Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States," explains Bruce Babbitt, former US Secretary of the Interior.
Some are good, providing water and hydroelectric power. Some are bad, choking off rivers and proving a threat to communities.
From the Johnstown flood to national fish hatcheries, salmon ceremonies of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to the destruction of the fishing grounds of the Columbia River Indians, the intricacies of desert agriculture to the incursion of Tennessee Valley Authority, we get an interesting history of dam building in America.
Early in the film we meet co-director Ben Knight ("My name is Ben. I’ll be your narrator…") who delivers this combination history lesson and environmental discourse, peppered with comments by graffiti artists and hard-hat engineers.
"At one point almost half of all the US electricity needs were supplied by hydro power alone," Ben tells us. It was seen as the "clean" energy source. But time has underscored problems.
That has led to programs of river conservation and dam removal. "It’s hard to define this as a movement," says Travis Rummel. "It’s more of an economic choice. Sometimes it’s less expensive to take them out."
Environmentalists and activists are engaged in identifying bad dams and leading the charge to get rid of them. Peaceful demonstrations seem to be the rule.
Perhaps the most interesting activists are the graffiti artists who leave their messages painted on large concrete canvases.
"DamNation" follows one such graffiti artist, loaded with paint buckets, up the side of a dam as he paints a gigantic crack in it, a warning of what might happen at this weakened site.
Another famous graffiti on the Matilija Dam in California depicts a series of stitch marks along with a humongous pair of scissors, symbolically saying to cut here to remove this troublesome monument. This act of public vandalism woke up people to the fact that something had to be done.
"Officially there was a crime committed… but no one's going to get prosecuted," says Jeff Pratt, Ventura County Public Works Director.
So if hydroelectric power is not the perfect solution for America’s energy needs, what is? "Turns out there’s no silver bullet," shrugs Rummel. "Every energy source has its cost."
When asked to sum up "DamNation" in one sentence, Travis Rummel says, "It’s not about hating dams; it’s about loving rivers and reevaluating the river landscape."
Not surprisingly, the film is "dedicated to those who work passionately and tirelessly to protect our rivers."