DamNation: SXSW Review

Handsome eco doc doesn't fully argue its point.

Ben Knight and Travis Rummel argue that thousands of dams across America should be destroyed.

AUSTIN -- Arguing that America went overboard with dam-building just as we've overexploited many other natural resources, Ben Knight and Travis Rummel's DamNation envisions a naturalist-friendly future in which rivers are once more allowed to flow freely. The well photographed doc (supported by the outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia) is better at planting a question in viewers' minds than at defending its position, perhaps assuming that talk of beleaguered salmon populations will be enough to do the job. The already-converted will embrace it at fests -- judging from its SXSW audience award, plenty of viewers fall into this category -- and the film could have a modest theatrical life, but it seems best suited for specialty bookings where conservation groups can rally their troops.

Narrating the film, Knight recalls once seeing dams mainly as a picturesque location for making skateboard videos. Then he found others whose trespassing onto the structures was politically motivated — inspired by Earth First!'s 1981 protest at Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam, where a giant piece of plastic made it seem the dam had developed a crack and was ready to burst.

Knight introduces us to many who'd like to make that illusion a reality -- from white-water rafting enthusiasts to marine biologists and Native American communities. Most of the film's focus is on salmon, whose migratory cycles are disrupted by dams, necessitating costly preservation programs and man-made hatcheries that may do more harm than good. The filmmakers assume viewers already lean toward their side of the argument; though they acknowledge the reasons behind dam construction (hydroelectric power being chief among them), they don't make much effort to pit conflicting values against each other with statistics or a devil's-advocate argument.

The film's history of dam building in America is a little too brisk, making time for a long section on the project at Glen Canyon. Here, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy, who served from 1959 to 1969, is depicted as a villain who was blind to the wealth of ancient artifacts and ruins (not to mention natural beauty) that would be wiped out by his man-made lake. Katie Lee, now 94, is the film's most engaging and entertaining voice, recalling her time with a small team of archaeologists sent to gather artifacts before the dam's construction. Home movies she and two male teammates shot depict a Terrence Malick-like idyll, more than explaining the anger Lee still harbors against those who destroyed the site.

Knight and Rummel proceed to chronicle efforts to identify and remove dams that have outlived their usefulness or should never have been built. They risk arrest to capture spectacular demolition footage and, predictably, tag along with activist vandals on a daring nighttime raid at the Hetch Hetchy dam. Closing scenes suggest that policymakers are increasingly friendly to anti-dam groups, leaving DamNation simply to cheer the movement along.

Production company: Stoecker Ecological, Felt Soul Media
Directors: Ben Knight, Travis Rummel
Producers: Matt Stoecker, Travis Rummel
Executive producers: Yvon Chouinard
Director of photography-Editor: Ben Knight
Sales: Brian Newman, Sub-Genre
No MPAA rating, 87 minutes