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DamNation | Review

River Runners: Knight & Rummel Ruminate On Damming Evidence

Damnation Ben Knight Travis Rummel PosterJust as directors Ben Knight and Travis Rummel’s Red Gold firmly yet astutely opposed the mining of the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska, their latest collaboration unabashedly critiques America’s long held obsession with damming our waterways with a striking intelligence that not only plays to their outdoorsy compatriots with a predilection for fly fishing and whitewater rafting, but anyone with an appetite for environmental activism. And that’s not to say that DamNation is completely biased, having explained the bureaucratic history and benefits behind the damming movement in a densely composed, Burns-esque prologue and unsuccessfully sought the input of leaders from the pro-dam party line within the film itself, but its graffiti plastered one-sheet alone makes crystal clear the filmmakers’ intentions – they frankly want these dam things removed.

Inserting himself as narrator and occasional on screen character, Knight begins by setting the political stage, introducing former Earth First activist Mikal Jakubal and looking back, finding that the American obsession with dam building began with Theodore Roosevelt’s hands on approach to conservation and continued with his cousin Franklin’s New Deal policies, which supported large-scale public works projects, gave the unemployed skilled work and provided hydropower to a nation swiftly moving toward higher energy consumption. Laid atop the team’s gorgeous nature cinematography, F.D.R. calls them ‘an engineering victory of the first order, another great achievement of American resourcefulness, American skill and American determination’, but what started as a promising economical jump start soon became an ecological disaster as healthy rivers across the country became a series of restrained watersheds, flooded utopias and trickling streams that cut off various breeds of salmon, steelhead and other essential wildlife from their ancestral spawning locales. Much time is given to the beauty and importance of these fish and the tragic fact that many of them now live on the endangered species list.

While the swift yet stark political history can at first feel a bit overbearing, the film is a slickly produced, highly entertaining investigation that feels a bit in line with Michael Moore’s work, with its hard facts and straight faced interviews mixed alongside comically tinged animations and hidden recording capers. Thinking it an applicable experiment, at one point Knight and Rummel paddle their kayaks down the Snake River of Lewiston, Idaho, testing the on-paper legality of recreational passage through the commercially intended locks of the dammed up waterway. For questioning their illegal refusal, they almost find themselves in jail for eco-terrorism and espionage, federal crimes punishable without the formal checks and balances of our current legal system.

Though utterly ridiculous, the seriousness of their tense encounter echoes the gravity of the shifting political state they find themselves observing. The idea of removing dams has long been considered crazy talk, yet the last decade has seen many antiquated dams removed piece by piece, or more dramatically, by visually stunning dynamite blast, returning riverbeds to their naturally free flowing state, and in turn, restoring fisheries long deprived of their fundamental transient progenitors. Erring on the side of caution, DamNation documents this hopeful  political sea change, knowing all too well the wind blows both ways. With their tightly written narrative, Knight and Rummel pair their observations with thorough historical context and playful political activism that not only calls attention to, but celebrates this shift in ecological understanding. And though some walls are coming down, it seems still more could stand to follow suit. As one river watching volunteer memorably puts it, ‘The great beauty of wild fish is that we don’t have to do a god damn thing for them, except leave them the hell alone.’ We’re convinced. Let the walls crack and the salmon run.


Reviewed on March 15th at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival –  Documentary Spotlight. 87 Min

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