Countless Vancouver residents have felt the spray and heard the roar of the Cleveland Dam. As a massive, 60-year-old concrete structure storing drinking water for the region—and, potentially, generating hydroelectricity in the future—the dam on the Capilano River seems timeless and immutable, but it’s not.
Indeed, Travis Rummel, director and producer of the documentary film DamNation, told the Georgia Straight that all dams have a “life cycle” and are, therefore, temporary.
“Sediment fills in behind them, and then concrete starts to crack,” Rummel said by phone from Denver. “It’s a matter of time.”
On Saturday (May 3), DamNation will have its Canadian premiere at the 2014 DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver. Running 87 minutes, the film—bankrolled by Patagonia, the outdoor-clothing company—chronicles changing attitudes toward dams and the growing movement calling for their removal.
Aside from a couple of quick shots of rivers in British Columbia, DamNation focuses exclusively on the United States, particularly its Pacific Northwest. But the documentary is bound to resonate with viewers in this province, due to B.C. Hydro’s controversial proposal to build the $7.9-billion Site C dam on the Peace River and widespread concern about Pacific salmon runs in general.
Together with Ben Knight, DamNation’s other director, Rummel previously made Red Gold, a 2007 film that raised awareness of Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals’ proposed Pebble mine in Alaska. It’s no surprise that Rummel believes strongly in the “power of film” to be a catalyst for environmental change.
“I feel like in the environmental movement, if you can tell human stories that the audience can relate to, it’s a really powerful tool for inspiring change and just basically raising awareness,” Rummel said. “So much of the environmental struggle comes from lack of awareness, so if we can transport people for 90 minutes into a different reality, I think it goes a long way.”
DamNation spends a good chunk of time on the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, site of the largest dam-removal project in U.S. history. In 2011, the National Park Service began decommissioning the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, facilitating the return of salmon to the upper river for the first time in 100 years and revitalizing the culture of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.
It’s a story that brings to mind the building of dams on B.C.’s Coquitlam and Cheakamus rivers in the 1900s. These dams harmed salmon runs and the livelihoods of members of the Kwikwetlem and Squamish First Nations, respectively.
As of March 2013, B.C. was home to 2,119 dams, according to a report by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. Rummel hopes DamNation leads people in B.C. to rethink those dams whose costs outweigh their benefits.
“I just hope,” Rummel said, “that it really inspires people to re-examine how they view rivers and dams and have some vision for what the future could be like without a dam on the river.”
DamNation screens Saturday (May 3) at the Cinematheque and next Thursday (May 8) at the Vancity Theatre as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.