DamNation: Whole Terrain interviews documentary filmmaker Travis Rummel

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
DamNation PosterLike many environmentalists, I am ambivalent about dams. I appreciate them as a relatively “green” source of electricity compared to coal-fired power plants, but I wonder whether the benefit outweighs the cost of the damage to the river ecosystem, not to mention the fishing rights of the native people whose rivers have been functionally stolen from them. My spouse’s grandfather worked as a civil engineer in the heyday of dam building, the 1950s-1970s, and he took great pride in his work. Family pictures of my father-in-law are inevitably posed in front of one dam or another that they visited on a family vacation. Dams are a marvel of human ingenuity, and I can empathize with the sense of accomplishment my grandfather-in-law must have felt at being able to design such a structure and see it control the forces of nature, providing benefits to his community ranging from power generation and recreation to flood control and irrigation.

Given this personal ambivalence, I approached the film DamNation with anticipation. (See trailer below.) I wanted to learn more about the history of dams, their construction (and sometimes removal), the ways they effect a river’s ecosystem, and the filmmakers’ take on whether or not dams are a good idea. I was not disappointed; all of these themes were touched on in the film. DamNation introduces us to dam workers and politicians, activists and authors (including Whole Terrain’s volume 9 contributor, David James Duncan), explorers and scientists, historians and artists, recreation enthusiasts and Native Americans practicing salmon rituals. The filmmakers deftly weave these voices together to give a holistic picture of the positives and negatives of dams, and we see their own transformation as they move from detached filmmakers to personally-invested activists.

A few minutes into the film, a brief history of dams appears. Although this is probably necessary in the telling of a tale of this nature, this part of the film proceeded too quickly to be absorbed, and therefore came across as a bit boring.

The rest of the film more than made up for this minor criticism, however. The filmmakers visited dams in the Pacific Northwest, California, Colorado, the Southwest, and New England, sharing stories of the biggest dams in the country as well as many smaller ones. While documentaries often focus on information to the exclusion of artistic imagery, DamNation provides stunning cinematography, including excellent interview footage, underwater shots of salmon and other fish, and vast panoramas that show the scale of the dams as well as the beauty of their natural setting.

I recently spoke with director, producer, and videographer Travis Rummel about his experience working on this film. He and his filmmaking partner, Ben Knight, enjoy making films with an environmental emphasis. Their film company, Felt Soul Media, also created Red Gold (2007), which documents salmon, mining, and land use rights in Alaska.

Without further ado, below is my conversation with Travis Rummel.

Travis Rummel

Travis Rummel, documentary filmmaker, director, and producer of DamNation

Whole Terrain: How did you become interested in dams and decide to make a film on this topic?

Travis Rummel: Over the last decade, Ben Knight and I have created films that have to do with outdoor adventure and the environment, and lately we’ve been more focused on the environmental front. We had worked with Patagonia in the past, and they along with Matt Stoecker approached us to do a film about dam removal. At first, we were skeptical. We thought it would be hard to make a compelling film, and we didn’t know much about dams. But we thought about it some more, and we got to spend some time with Matt and Yvon [founder of Patagonia], who both had such passion for the topic that we began to get excited about it. It was a big learning curve for us as filmmakers, and we had to work hard to humanize the story, to make it compelling for a general audience and not just for people who were already aware of all the issues surrounding dams. We spent a lot of time finding characters who could bring the story to life, such as Katie Lee and David James Duncan.

David James Duncan at home in Lolo, MT

David James Duncan, author of The River Why and The Brothers K, getting ready for his interview for DamNation

WT: What was one of the most surprising, interesting, or shocking things you learned about dams during the making of this film?

TR: I was shocked at the sheer number of dams, and how there are dams practically in everyone’s backyard. There are 85,000 dams over 6 feet high in the national registry. Once you open your eyes and start looking for dams, you realize they’re everywhere across the country.

WT: What were some of your favorite moments during the making of this film?

TR: It was surprisingly powerful seeing all the activists float through the Condit Dam site on the White Salmon River. It hit me that dam removal really starts with one passionate person. It took over 20 years to get the Condit Dam removed, and to be there filming them, to see people out there floating through the former dam site, was powerful.

WT: Who inspired you the most of all the people you met during the film?

Katie Lee

Katie Lee in Glen Canyon prior to the building of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963

TR: Katie Lee. She was 93 when we interviewed her for the film, and you can still see the fire in her eyes. She’s unbelievably passionate about restoring Glen Canyon. She’s incredibly sharp, and it was great to be able to share her story further and wider than would have been possible without the film.

WT: Did you consider yourselves environmental activists before making this film, and do you now?

TR: Yes, I feel like everyone has a role to play. Our skill set is taking complex stories and making them approachable for an audience. That’s our role in helping the environment. It’s something we really believe in. We enjoy telling stories and getting people engaged on an issue they might not have cared about before watching the film.

WT: If you could have your way, would you remove every dam in the United States, or do you think there’s a place for some hydroelectric power generation and other uses for dams?

Dam removal

Removal of the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, Washington

TR: One misconception that everyone seems to have is that all dams produce hydropower, but only 4-5% generate hydro power. On the policy front, in the film we’re not advocating the removal of every single dam, but we point out that each dam has a finite lifespan. Lots of dams have outlived their utility. We’re asking people to rethink the utility of each dam, and to compare the ecosystem-wide cost of having them there, the ongoing costs for repairing them, and the cost/benefit for removing them.

In many ways, this is a generational issue. There was a huge patriotic movement in the 1940-1960’s to conquer nature and have nature work for us. The younger generations see the possibilities with taking them out, and the huge benefits that come with systemic habitat restoration.

Crack painted on Glines Canyon Dam, Elwha

An activist’s painting of a crack on the Glines Canyon Dam, formerly on the Elwha River, Washington

WT: Knowing what you now know after making this film, what would you suggest as a replacement green/clean power source if regions are thinking about removing their dams?

TR: In many cases the dams that are being removed are no longer major contributors of power. The Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington was replaced with as few as 4 wind turbines in the Columbia gorge. With the continued development of wind and solar and the exponential growth of renewable energy production, the nation will be able to replace hydroelectric dams eventually. That being said, we have all this infrastructure in place, so it makes sense to continue using it for the life expectancy of the dam. Then we can replace it once each dam goes offline. I don’t think we need to go and tear down every dam tomorrow — though the fish would probably be happier if we did!

WT: What do you hope will happen as a result of people watching DamNation?

TR: I hope it will open people’s eyes to dams in their area, and to make them look critically at the landscape. I hope it will inspire people to have some imagination; to see a free-flowing river instead of a wall of concrete. Dams have become such a part of the landscape that most people do not even see them as anomolies. It is my hope that with this film people will at least begin to reexamine their relationship with rivers and wider ecosystems, and to reevaluate how we use our power to manage them.

Pink salmon and dam

Pink salmon unable to navigate past the Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River, Washington. The dam has since been removed.

WT: The cinematography in the film was incredible. Tell us a little about your artistic process and choices, and why you decided to make the film that way.

TR: Ben and I wanted to make the film as graphically composed as we would when shooting still images with our DSLRS. We blew our life’s savings on a RED ONE, an ultra high-definition cinematic camera. We wanted to keep it simple and ended up shooting most of DamNation with just a tripod and set of prime lenses. Our motto was, “Keep it simple and make it beautiful.” We also used a Canon 5D Mark III, and a GoPro for the action shots. Our co-producer, Matt Stoecker, did most of our underwater shooting as well.

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To learn more about DamNation, visit their website. You can purchase a DVD or high quality download version of the film for personal use, and if you want to use the film in an educational setting, find it at Bullfrog Films. It is available in two versions, the full-length version at 87 minutes and a classroom version at 52 minutes. This film would be an excellent addition to a high school or college course, or a community educational event regarding issues surrounding a local dam. It touches on history, environmental and human justice issues, and the privatization of natural resources, as well as ecosystem functioning and creative activism.

I will leave you with a quote from Edward Abbey, used in the film: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” Beware that if you watch this film, your sentiment will be raised. Will you, like the filmmakers, let that sentiment touch your soul and lead toward action?

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