Brian Lilla's documentary "Patagonia Rising" weighs the environmental and cultural impact of five massive hydroelectric dams proposed for Chile's Patagonia region.

Brian Lilla’s documentary “Patagonia Rising” weighs the environmental and cultural impact of five massive hydroelectric dams proposed for Chile’s Patagonia region. Pic interviews residents, scientists, activists and others, ultimately aligning itself strongly with those who oppose the project. Handsome nature views and an intelligent big-picture take on global trends toward damming — worth uttering in the same breath as climate change for their massive impact on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems — make this a worthy sit with just enough human interest to avoid info-overload. First Run plans a U.S. theatrical rollout sometime next year.

Awe-inspiring footage of spectacular lands at South America’s southernmost tip introduce the gauchos, loggers and other residents whose ways of life have barely changed over centuries, particularly since no roads or power lines connect many ranches. (Indeed, the recent introduction of solar-powered radio communication has been a welcome major change, allowing people to warn each other of approaching floodwaters caused by the more frequent temperature fluctuations within glaciers.)

But things could change soon. Water rights, once national property, now primarily rest in the hands of Spanish investment company Endsea, which wants to launch the ambitious dam project, expected to cost more than $7 billion and take a decade to construct. The result would be enormous amounts of energy for the north, which business and government interests say the country needs to keep pace with growth.

But the toll in lands flooded, people displaced, and unique area flora and fauna possibly rendered extinct is harder to gauge. Some citizens are willing to sell their property in hopes of a better life elsewhere, others are not; in any case, Endsea has a problematic record of fulfilling promises made to folks uprooted in prior dam projects. City dwellers interviewed in distant Santiago are all over the map regarding the project, many professing they know very little about the dams; media scrutiny has been scant.

Such dams have long been a bone of contention between business and political interests on the one hand, residents and environmentalists on the other. Worldwide, such projects are proliferating at an alarming rate, with safety concerns often flaunted and 1% of the Earth’s land now submerged beneath reservoirs. Ecological issues include the cessation of river flow to the ocean, which cuts delivery of freshwater nutrients and sediment, killing plankton, which is ground zero in the aquatic food chain. Animation and graphics illustrate the potential impact of these and other human endeavors; pic estimates some 2,000 dam projects are under consideration around the globe.

Experts insist Chile’s (and most other nations’) escalating needs could be met by increased energy efficiency, as well as investing in low-impact alternative sources like solar, wind and geothermal. The lone voice of the pro-dam establishment is a company flack whose bland glass-half-full pronouncements aren’t especially reassuring. Pic keeps going back to a handful of mostly elderly area residents to provide a note of more personal viewer identification.

Polished presentation is highlighted by Lilla’s often impressive lensing.

Patagonia Rising

Chile-U.S.

Production

A First Run Features (in U.S.) release of a Three Peaks Pictures production in association with the Center for Independent Documentary. Produced by Greg Miller, Scott Douglas. Directed, edited by Brian Lilla.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Lilla; music, Axel Herrera; motion graphics, Cosmo Ray; sound, Jeremiah Moore. Reviewed at San Francisco Docfest, Oct. 23, 2011. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Juvenal Fuentes Arratia, Bernardo Arratia, Lautaro Arratia, Lalo Ojeda, Mitzi Urtubia, Hernan Salazar, Patrick McCully, Enrique Sanchez, Lalo Sandoval, Gino Cassasa, Roberto Roman Latorre, Stephen Hall. Narrator: Carla Wilkins. (Spanish, English dialogue)

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