Ben Knight and “DamNation”

By Jessica Lyn Thompson

Rivers are the lifeblood of the land; veins of freshwater coursing through the countryside, circulating sediment from mountain peaks to the sea, offering thousands of miles of passage to a myriad of species and navigating every imaginable terrain to unite the ever precious resource with the living. Similar to the blood in our bodies and the blockage of an artery, stagnation brings death. When you dam a river, in some way or another, you damn that ecosystem. Upstream from a dam, changes in water temperature and chemical composition place critical pressure on native species and welcome invasive species like algae blooms and bacteria. Migrating fish struggle to find passage despite the inclusion of fish ladders, and sediments build up at the base of dams instead of flowing downstream to nourish the rest of the river. Perhaps the era of dams is over, and it’s time to start rethinking their presence in the 21st century. River enthusiast, filmmaker and Felt Soul Media co-founder Ben Knight couldn’t agree more.

It’s becoming to sit down with Ben beside the pristine rushing waters of the San Miguel River in Telluride, CO. His newest film, “DamNation,” explores the environmental, social and cultural effects of the more than 80,000 dams that now litter our nation’s rivers, blocking sediment flows and fish runs, flooding treasured landscapes and altering the geography of the land. Officially selected into the program of Telluride’s treasured Mountainfilm festival, the film just screened the previous night to resounding applause, a standing ovation, and a packed theatre of people now wondering the same thing: “How could I ever NOT care about dams?” Beaming with humility, talent and unadulterated passion, Ben shared a bit of insight into creating what’s gearing up to become one of the most popular and important documentaries of the year.

When you dam a river, in some way or another, you damn that ecosystem.

BFM: How did you get involved in “DamNation?” 
Ben Knight: “Damnation” came about three years ago when the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, an advocate for dam removal and river restoration, and his friend Matt Stoecker, who’s a biologist and underwater photographer, decided it was a good time to make a film about dams. Two of the largest dam removal projects in history were about to start – the Elwha and the Condit. They had seen some of our films, so they had come to us thinking that we might have the right sensitivity to that kind of subject to tell the story. And we always seem to make films about rivers and fish for some reason.

BFM: I heard you guys were a bit hesitant at first?
BK: Yeah, we actually said no to the project at first because it was so daunting. With over 80,000 dams in the U.S., it’s like, even if you have a list of 30, where do you start? Mainly I could not wrap my head around how we were going to humanize that subject. The whole point about making a film about dams is making people care about the rivers and think a little bit more about the subject. That’s why we said no, it just seemed huge. But the more we thought about it, it seems crazy to say no to something just because it’s hard.

Ben Knight

Photo by Laira Kozolowski / Ben Knight

BFM: So, now that you’d taken on the daunting task of filtering through an insane amount of potential subjects, what was your process for choosing which dams to feature?

BK: The process was pretty hard. We borrowed a friend’s van and drove almost 10,000 miles around the country to visit some of the dams we knew were causing a lot of harm. We also met people along the way that we thought really resonated with the story. Also we were lucky, like I said before, because two huge dams were coming out, so that helped shape the story a lot. The other dams that we picked, we picked them because they really need to come out.

BFM: The film brought up many reasons why a dam might qualify for removal, including the prospect of restoring bountiful salmon and steelhead trout runs. Why is it important to the fuss ti remove the dams?

BK: “Damnation” is not advocating for the removal of every dam. What we’re asking for is to start thinking a little differently or more critically about some of the dams that are causing a lot of harm to their watersheds or not creating that much benefit. A lot of these older dams that are 50 or 100 years old, they aren’t generating that much electricity anymore and some of them are blocking incredible salmon runs. That’s a sustainable food source that’s free, and it comes back. We can take half of it, and they’ll just keep replacing themselves. These fish are amazing. When the fish come up from the ocean they bring nutrients up into the mountains for all the animals to feed on. Dams increase water temperatures, which is bad for the fish. There’s just a lot of low-hanging fruit that needs to be looked at more critically. That’s what the film is trying to shed a little light on. If people leave “Damnation” thinking a little bit more about the rivers in their backyard, that’s all we want to do with the film.

BFM: Can you touch briefly on a few dams you are advocating for removal? I noticed the petition ‘Crack Down on Deadbeat Dams.’

BK: There are so many dams, it’s hard to even start that conversation. The dams we’re advocating the removal of in our petition are the four lower Snake River dams. Those dams block over 5,000 miles of salmon habitat. We’re really focused on those because if we can get rid of them, we can restore one of the best salmon runs in the United States, if not the best. I mean, it would be incredible. Those dams are absolutely ridiculous. The Army Corps says they’re there for flood control, and they’re not. They don’t work that way because they’re run-of-river dams. They’re blocking the salmon. They all have fish passage, but there are just too many dams for the fish to get past. It seems like the whole reason they exist is for barges to bring goods like grain up and down stream, but there’s a perfectly good railroad that runs the whole corridor. To me, it just seems like a no-brainer. I think it makes a lot more sense to restore that salmon run.

BFM: You mentioned the removal of the Condit dam as a pivotal part of the story. In the film, you captured the explosion, unbeknownst to the blast facilitators. What was that like?

BK: So, the Condit dam was going to come out. That dam was exactly a hundred years old, and the powerhouse was just really antiquated and old. It still generated power, but not a ton. The Federal Regulatory Energy Commission requires a fish passage on dams like that, so it would’ve cost millions to put in the fish passage. They ran the numbers, and they said it would take about three windmills to replace that energy. It was cheaper to actually tear it down. They were going to put explosives in it, and I can’t imagine making a film about dams without some explosions. We spent almost a year trying to get permission to film, but no one would let us near it. That drove me crazy because I knew we had to get the footage. I didn’t want to set up some kind of remote camera, that just wasn’t any fun, so we decided to sneak in at night and build a camera blind. I had a camouflage blanket over me and face paint and all that. I slept there on the hillside overnight. In the morning, there was a helicopter flying around looking for people because they had to make sure the blast path was clear. It was just nerve wracking because I knew if they saw me they would cancel the blast, and I did not want to be responsible for that. My heart was pounding the whole time.

Photo by Laira Kozolowski

Photo by Laira Kozolowski

BFM: I couldn’t even imagine.

BK: I think it was important for the film to go to some lengths to get certain shots. I feel like you can tell when you watch a film that people worked really hard and took some risks. I love it when people are a little more bold in what they do. Patagonia is a pretty bold company, so I felt like they would appreciate that.

BFM: I think they did. I see so much emotion in the film, especially the segment about flooding Celilo Falls where the Native Americans had gathered for centuries to catch salmon. Do you see hope of their return?

BK: Editing that story together and working with those interviews was probably the most emotional part of the film for me. Seeing that place, a place that used to be the most vibrant gathering place for almost every tribe in the Pacific Northwest — it was just such a scared place. They would all come together and harvest fish there, and we dammed it just so those barges could come up and down the stream to generate a little bit of electricity. That was all those tribes had left. It’s absolutely insane to me that it was ever considered. If we did that now, it would be considered a cultural genocide. And now it’s just a parking lot on the side of the highway with a little plaque and some picnic tables. It’s really hard to go there and know what was there. As far as Celilo Falls goes, the falls are still there, they’ve checked. As far as getting them back, that’s going to be hard. It’s on the Columbia River, and those dams are generating quite a bit of power. It’s going to be tough to get rid of those.

BFM: At the end of the film, you capture a stunning segment of your friends painting a pair of giant scissors with a cut line down the Matilija dam in Ojai. What was that experience like?

BK: It was incredible to be there to capture the scissors being painted. That was definitely one of the most memorable nights of my life. It was also pretty intense because those were my friends up there, and I was worried about them. I wanted everyone to be safe. They were excited to do it, and everything went great. When the moon went behind the ridge and the Milky Way came out over the dam, I don’t know, it was around 3 a.m., and the scissors started to come into shape, it was incredible. When that time-lapse was done, and we saw it for the first time, and I put a little bit of music to it, there were instant tears. It was a big deal to see that for the first time. We sent photos of the scissors out the next day to local press, and no one believed it. They literally thought it was fake, so no one paid attention to the story for about a week, and then finally someone drove up there and realized it was there.

BFM: What was your experience working with author, activist and all-around superwoman Katie Lee?

BK: When we started the project, I knew I didn’t want every piece of the film to be talking about fish and fish issues. I also wanted to focus on a dam that had to do with an incredible place, which should’ve been a national park, being flooded. That’s Glen Canyon. When I think of Glen Canyon, I think of Katie Lee. She is absolutely unbelievable. I think she resonates with more people than anything else in the film. I think we could pretty much scrap the rest of the film and just focus on her because she’s the highlight for everyone. She used to be a Hollywood actress when she was really young, and she was about to get really big, and a friend invited her on a river trip. She never looked back to Hollywood. She literally spent the rest of her life advocating for the removal of Glen Canyon Dam. She’s a really special woman, she’s 94 years old. I think at the screening the other night she said something like, ‘If you don’t have the passion, go home, lock your door and die.’

BFM: Talk about passion. And you guys have it too, I mean, you won Audience Choice at SXSW.

BK: Premiering at SXSW was a big deal. It was the biggest festival we’ve ever gotten into, so just that was enough, but to win that award didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t seem real. We’ve been selling out a lot of theatres, so I just keep pinching myself. I never in my wildest dreams thought we could make a film about dams that could keep people in their seats for an hour and a half. And not just in their seats, but they seem pretty into it.

BFM: With that sort of momentum, what is your hope and purpose for the film?

BK: My hope is definitely that if people drive by a dam, don’t look at it as part of the landscape, look at it critically and think, ‘what’s that dam doing there, what purpose does it serve?’ Did the Bureau of Reclamation just build that dam because they had some budget they needed to spend or is that dam there for a good reason? I think it’s time to give it more thought. If people watch the film and feel inclined to love their rivers a little more, that’s all I want out of it.

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Post-interview, I couldn’t help but appreciate the raw beauty and strength of the gushing San Miguel. Ben’s hopes resonated with me over the following few weeks. I think nature provides a completeness in humanity that we sometimes fail to acknowledge until it’s lost. I recently stole away to the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles to escape the bombardment of everyday business and bustle and to find a bit of perspective and simplicity. I’d visited several times before, but on the relentlessly winding road up the mountain, I noticed something that I hadn’t ever taken note of before: a massive, 315-foot high concrete structural wall. In hindsight, it’s absurd to think that anyone could’ve passed over the 1,520-foot-long San Gabriel Dam. But now, I wonder. I wonder about its purpose and its presence in the wilderness. I wonder about the San Gabriel River and how the dry and barren waterway might have looked a century ago.