Despite the hellfire-and-brimstone title, “DamNation” proves to be a relatively tame eco-issue doc that prioritizes visually stunning nature photography over inflammatory rhetoric and dire prognostications. An audience award winner at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, the second feature from documentarians Ben Knight and Travis Rummel was sponsored by California-based clothing company Patagonia, which plans screenings at 30 retail locations on June 5 following limited theatrical runs in New York, Los Angeles and Portland. The support of an influential brand and imminent streaming release should give the pic a better-than-average shot at connecting with environmentally conscious viewers, who are sure to remember the lush imagery far longer than any of the flimsily presented information about the abundance of dams in the U.S.
Although we’re told early on that more than 75,000 dams exist in the U.S., and “DamNation” clearly believes that’s not a good thing, Knight and Rummel leave more questions than answers as to exactly why we’re better off without them. Jumbled history lessons establish President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s enthusiasm for dam building as an economic boon in the wake of the Great Depression, something that Knight’s own folksy narration explains ultimately went “too far.”
While dams provided welcome hydropower along with employment, resistance to their construction has been longstanding in environmental circles. For many years, those who objected to the limitations these concrete monoliths imposed on nature’s previously free-flowing rivers were largely branded as kooks. That’s no longer the case, and due to reasons that owe as much to economic factors as environmental ones, many dams are being demolished (the impressive spectacle of which is seen here, in footage obtained by the filmmakers with a high degree of difficulty).
So it’s all the more confounding that “DamNation” does little in the way of presenting the pros alongside the cons of dams, resulting in cheerful feature-length propaganda that seems to be disagreeing with no one in particular. A token visit to a “Save Our Dams” protest group results in zero interviews but a lot of interchangeable shots of old white folks, while the disclosure that no pro-dam politician wanted to participate with the filmmakers comes as little surprise. The lone voices in support of dams come from a few power facility employees who will be out of a job when the structures are destroyed.
Without any vocal dissent, the dramatic burden here falls on the plight of salmon unable to migrate to their historic spawning grounds due to dams. This in turn ropes in related issues like the proliferation of costly and ethically dubious fish hatcheries as compensation for reduced fish presence in certain areas, and the disruption to Native American customs born out of annual salmon runs. As arbitrarily as these issues are raised, they’re just as randomly dropped, and the film’s haphazard focus muddies the waters without doing anything to clarify the overall stakes.
Fortunately, the continual visual splendors make a rather striking argument of their own. A shot of salmon swimming free, juxtaposed with the brutality of a hatchery, is an old trick but an effective one in this context. And Knight, who also serves as d.p. and editor, magnificently captures the natural beauty of unencumbered rivers to provide a perfect contrast with the hulking man-made obstacles that dams represent to nature’s free will.
A visit with lively 94-year-old folk singer Katie Lee (who could inspire a documentary all her own) emerges as the heart of the film. Her spirited recollections of a fateful 1950s vacation in Glen Canyon, Ariz., paint a vivid picture of the area before it was submerged under the waters of a dam-made reservoir. They’re driven home by photos and home movies revealing a thirtysomething Lee frolicking in nature (occasionally in the buff, though she swears there was no “hanky-panky” with her male companions), and once again it’s the images that best illustrate the natural wonders diminished by a dam-obsessed nation.