Knight and Rummel’s ‘DamNation’ at Mountainfilm
TELLURIDE – Ben Knight, co-director of Felt Soul Media’s newest release, DamNation, says touring has been an “intense” experience because of the emotions the film is eliciting from audiences.
Ever since it premiered at South by Southwest in March, “It’s been quite an experience to be out on the road with it,” Knight says. “At almost every screening, there are people the film really resonates with, for whatever reason – be it the characters, the places or the rivers restored.
It’s connecting with people.”
DamNation will make that connection with Telluride Mountainfilm Festival audiences this weekend, when screenings take place Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Palm Theatre, and Sunday at 8:45 p.m. at the Town Park Base Camp stage. Even though the timing wasn’t right for premiering the film at this year’s festival in Telluride, Knight said, the Mountainfilm debut marks “the most important screening of them all.”
For Knight and co-director Travis Rummel, creators of Telluride-born Felt Soul Media, the three-years-in-the-making DamNation has been their most challenging yet rewarding project since Red Gold, which won the Audience Award at Mountainfilm four years ago.
DamNation explores a shift in attitude towards big dams in the U.S. A onetime source of the nation’s engineering pride, dams are now subject to the growing awareness that our future is bound to the health of our rivers. Nationwide, as obsolete dams come down, the rivers that fed them flow back to life. DamNation takes a look at the rivers and landscapes that have been altered by dams, as well as at changing values in society as we move from idealizing the conquest and control of rivers to the realization that all of human society is inextricably linked with nature.
The project got its start after the film’s Executive Producer Yvon Chouinard and Producer Matt Stoecker saw Red Gold and Eastern Rises (yet another Felt Soul Media project), and realized Knight and Rummel were the right team for chronicling the dam removal movement in the U.S.
As a young man, Stoecker witnessed migrating steelhead roadblocked at Stanford University’s Searsville Dam, and recognized the destruction a dam can unleash on a watershed (he is now a fish biologist who has spearheaded the removal of more than a dozen dams). Chouinard, the founder and owner of the outdoor retailer, Patagonia, and a longtime dam activist, shares Stoecker’s desire to free rivers.
Knight and Rummel were honored to be asked to take on the project – but daunted, nonetheless, by the scope of it. “We said no at first,” Knight recalls. “We just thought it would be too hard, honestly. Turns out we were right. It took us three years – twice as long as we planned for – but mainly because the story kept evolving.”
Rediscovered archival footage and pristine vintage photography used in DamNation reveals a young archaeological “salvage” team working against time to recover priceless Anasazi artifacts before the flooding of Glen Canyon in 1958. Singer Katie Lee was among the last to experience the canyon and, at the age of 94, still recalls the vivid beauty of its walls.
Other voices in DamNation range from government officials to those living in concert with a beloved river and include the outrage of a Nez Perce elder, who recalls the flooding of his people’s sacred falls and fishing grounds along the Columbia, and the quiet testimony of a river keeper, who has manned his post 12 hours a day for 13 years to count, observe and protect a Rogue River steelhead run.
Knight says DamNation marks a step in a different direction from the character-based structure of Red Gold, which painted a big picture through individual stories from within the vast Alaskan watershed. DamNation, on the other hand, follows a narrative style, bringing the audience along on the filmmakers’ educational journey of dams and dam removal.
“When I started this project, I didn’t know anything about dams,” Knight says. “I thought it would be cool to take a humble approach to this, and have people join me in a learning experience.”
While a few viewers have missed its pointed message, for the most part, audiences have found the film entertaining and thought provoking. “I really think people are leaving the film and giving more thought to the dams in their backyard,” Knight says.
Special guests at the screenings of DamNation, along with Knight and Rummel, include Stoecker, Lee and former Earth First! activist Mikal Jukubal, who, in the 1980s, painted cracks on dams in the dark of night.
Put simply, “He inspired the end of the film,” Knight says.
Don’t miss the DamNation photo exhibit at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art during Mountainfilm at 130 E. Colorado Ave.