In 2011, biologist Matt Stoecker and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard found themselves at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Having watched the impact of dams on rivers over the years, they wanted to take transformative action to freeing rivers. Inspired by storytelling and the power of film at the festival, DamNation was born (like many great ideas) over a few cold beers.
Mirroring their own experience, the film takes viewers on an adventure depicting the stunning beautify of a free flowing river, the heartache of watching cultural sites be submerged under a reservoir, the power of explosions blowing up a dam, and the joy experienced by those who have fought for decades to see the river run free. DamNation has been criticized for it’s lack of balanced view. While the film finds many voices supporting Dams silent, DamNation stays true to the vision Matt & Yvon set out to make.
This powerful film odyssey across America explores the sea change in our national attitude from pride in big dams as engineering wonders to the growing awareness that our own future is bound to the life and health of our rivers. Dam removal has moved beyond the fictional Monkey Wrench Gang to go mainstream. Where obsolete dams come down, rivers bound back to life, giving salmon and other wild fish the right of return to primeval spawning grounds, after decades without access. DamNation’s majestic cinematography and unexpected discoveries move through rivers and landscapes altered by dams, but also through a metamorphosis in values, from conquest of the natural world to knowing ourselves as part of nature.
The creation of the film is probably the biggest adventure of them all. When Matt & Yvon approached filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel to collaborate, their first instinct was to pass. “It was hard to imagine that a film about dams — forbidding, inanimate concrete structures— could ever capture an audience like that. We eventually came to our senses and agreed to take the film on, but we were scared shitless”, says Ben.
In the summer of 2011, they hit the road in a borrowed camper van, a laundry list of dams, and a quiver of cameras. “As the miles, months and dams began to stack up, it soon became clear that our original vision of a year-long project would take much longer. We were hard-pressed to find a free-flowing watershed, and finding an intact fishery was impossible. A century of shortsighted development had left American rivers in ruin. Dams were every – where, thousands of them”, recalls Ben. In the midst of the very first, and largest, dam removal projects, the importance of the film became more clear but certainly not easy.
We felt unwelcome almost everywhere we filmed. We hardly went a day without hiding from someone or needing to trespass to get the shot we were after, and we nearly got arrested on one ill-fated kayaking trip down the Snake River. If we wanted a shot, it was always more effective to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. I never would have imagined it would be necessary to build a camera blind and dress like a bush to avoid a surveillance helicopter while filming a dam removal.
We have a lot of respect for films that take their time to tell the story. DamNation has taken three years to complete — more than twice as long as expected. But what we find is a vision realized. A celebration of rivers coming back to life.
After witnessing the incredible resiliency of nature that comes with the relatively simple gesture of dam removal, we now realize how much value there is in restoration and how little value many of the tens of thousands of dams in U.S. are actually delivering. In a way, dam removal reflects a shift in societal values from the need to conquer nature to letting nature do what she does best.
Learn more about the film and take action at damnationfilm.com