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Film Review: DamNation

Should dams be torn down in the name of watershed revival?

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Truth be told, there are plenty of people in the U.S. who don’t really give a damn about dams. Those who do, however, are divided by a central question: Tear them down or keep building them up? Just fifty years ago, the notion of removing a dam would have been absurd, but as watersheds have come back to life and native fish stocks have returned to once-dammed rivers, the debate over the future of water management has taken on new urgency in environmental circles.

DamNation, the provocative new documentary from Felt Soul Media, seeks to highlight this nationwide attitude shift on dam issues. Thanks in large part to stunning cinematography from photographer Matt Stoecker, the film succeeds in wringing compelling drama out of the hulking cement monoliths that so many people take for granted. Directors Ben Knight and Travis Rummel draw on a colorful cast of characters to make the case for addition by subtraction, including Earth First activist Mikal Jakubal (notorious for his flamboyant anti-dam graffiti in 1987) and environmentalist Katie Lee, who once posed naked in pre-flood Glen Canyon.

The film draws on several dam removal case studies from around the country (including Oregon’s Rogue River), but has the most impact when it demonstrates its principles firsthand. When Knight and Rummel attempt to kayak through the four dam locks on the lower Snake River only to wind up frustrated, it’s hard not to sympathize with John Muir’s impassioned fight to free the rivers a century ago. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard (who is credited as an executive producer) sums up the argument for fewer dams most succinctly: “After the river is restored and the fish have returned, you never hear a single person say, ‘Gee, I wish we had our dam back.’”

All of this is easier said than done, of course, for the counterargument is that widespread dam removal would be an economic catastrophe for the American aquaculture industry. Policy documentaries always run the risk of turning into the cinematic equivalent of broccoli, but the brisk pace and elegant visuals keep DamNation from bogging down.

Backpackers will certainly find they have a stake in this debate. Prime backcountry trails have been flooded by dams at Hetch Hetchy and Glen Canyon, and even if your only reason for caring about rivers is because you love a fresh-caught salmon dinner, the film poses a worthy question: at what cost wilderness?

DamNation is currently screening in select cities nationwide.

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