“A lot of people see a huge reservoir, and they think, That’s a beautiful, beneficial thing,” says filmmaker and conservationist Matt Stoecker. “But dams are like coal-fired power plants. They decimate a river’s ecosystem.”
Four years ago, Stoecker and Yvon Chouinard, founder of apparel company Patagonia, wanted to see rivers come to life on film as they returned to their free-flowing state. It was a particularly timely moment—two large dams in the heart of United States salmon habitat were set to be demolished. Stoecker reached out to Colorado-based filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel of Felt Soul Media to create a story about the U.S.’s long but evolving relationship with dams and the push to remove obsolete or decommissioned dams even as the country continues to use and build others.
The resulting 87-minute film, DamNation, has brought the topic of dam removal to a broad audience. It’s been racking up awards at festivals, including the prestigious Audience Choice Award at SXSW, and became available on Netflix in early November.
“Dams aren’t charismatic, so we pushed ourselves to find beautiful, character-driven stories,” says co-director Rummel.
From 95-year-old conservationist Katie Lee recalling her last trip down Glen Canyon before it was flooded to form Lake Powell to the artist and activist Mikal Jakubal recounting his iconic story of painting a crack down the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir’s dam in Yosemite, the film’s stories enliven and personalize a topic that could easily devolve into statistics and political talking heads. In the end, even director Ben Knight became a character, functioning as a guide for the viewer as the film navigates its way through the decades of history and dam locations across the U.S.
The project required about 80 days of filming and took three and a half years to complete. The crew was there to capture the demolition and removal of two dams in Washington State—the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula and the Condit Dam on the White Salmon just north of the Columbia River Gorge. Rummel and Knight nearly got arrested trying to kayak a series of navigational locks used by barges and personal watercraft on the Snake River. A fish biologist by training, Stoecker captured haunting underwater imagery of salmon returning to spawning grounds. Most of all, they chronicled the rebirth of an ecosystem after the dam removal.
“When we started, Ben and I didn’t really think these places could be restored. We pretty much wrote off the Lower 48 as a place where salmon could thrive,” says Rummel. “Once we saw how quickly the fish responded, we went from skeptics to believers.”
Within a year of the Elwha Dam removal, fish that had been denied access to the upper stretches of the watershed began swimming past the remains of the dams.
“On our last bit of filming, Travis and I returned to the Elwha,” remembers Stoecker. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this 30-pound Chinook salmon launching itself up the rapid, five or six feet out of the water. Two years earlier, I had been right there, underwater, filming fish trapped by the dam. I sat there for two days watching fish jump past the old dam site. Every time a fish jumped, Travis and I would put our arms in the air and cheer.”
National Geographic Adventure: Matt, you’ve been working on dam removal and habitat restoration since 1998. Why did you and Yvon Chouinard think it was the right time to make this film?
Matt Stoecker: With the Elwha and Condit Dams coming out, it was this insanely historic summer. These were the biggest dams removed in history. Before, the biggest dam that had come out was 50 feet tall. All of a sudden, we were raising the bar to 200 feet tall. We just knew that there were going to be incredible visuals of dams coming out and ecosystems coming back to life.
NGA: This project took three and a half years to complete. It’s not a simple topic. This must have been a daunting task.
Travis Rummel: Ben and I turned it down at first. But there is a lot of value to saying yes to things that you don’t necessarily know how to pull off. It meant not being afraid to fail.
NGA: The cinematography in this film is amazing. Ben, what approach did you take?
Ben Knight: I had this idea. I wanted to film it like we were shooting stills. When you look at a still photograph, you can stare at it for a minute and not get bored. I wanted to shoot more carefully. We left all the jibs and sliders and toys at home.
NGA: You must get asked all the time by other filmmakers for advice on trying to make a difference with their work. What do you say?
TR: Take on a topic that you are utterly passionate about, because it’s going to take over your life. Work with people you love. It helps. Ben and I have a really nice working relationship. I feel really fortunate for that because the reward is in the process. You won’t make money.
BK: I feel like once you make a film that makes an impression on people, to me, that becomes almost an addiction. As much as we would like to do something that makes money [laughing], that may never happen because I think we are both addicted to making films that matter. I think we will always be looking for the next project that feels good to our hearts.
NGA: After all the hard work, is there a specific part of this project you are really proud of?
BK: I’m just really proud that we were able to pull it off. There were literally years when I didn’t think we would be able to. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to make something bold enough.
NGA: Do you think the film has made an impact?
MS: When we showed it in Ventura, California, I had a seven-year-old give me a high five. The kid told me he wanted to be a dam buster. The film is working when that happens. We are entering this stage where the film is going out internationally. It’s cool to see how much interest there is abroad. I went to Finland and Norway and they put on big events where we showed it to heads of state. We are going to Japan and Chile. The U.S. led the charge in building dams. We are also now leading the charge in removing them. A lot of countries are at a critical juncture where they’ve built dams, they’ve got dams planned, but they are also starting to think about removing them and stopping proposed dams.