At one point in the environmentalist documentary DamNation, an aging naturalist says, “The beauty of wild fish is we don’t have to do a goddamn thing for them, except to leave them the hell alone.”
The rest of the film is devoted to chronicling the ways Americans have failed to keep this compact by overbuilding dams, many of which no longer serve any practical purpose except to block river fish migrations.
The good news is that some of these dams are starting to come down. DamNation covers the long fight to raze the Elwha Dam in Washington, from the radical graffitist who painted a crack on the dam in the 1980s to the dam’s controlled demolition just a few years ago. Within days of the demolition, salmon were fighting their way back upstream to their ancestral spawning grounds.
DamNation also tracks how dam removal has moved from the Edward Abbey-inspired anarchist fringe into the mainstream over the past few decades. Audiences may be unconvinced by the filmmakers’ arguments for removing major hydroelectric installations like the Grand Coulee Dam, but all will be moved by the film’s heartfelt and irreverent tributes to paradises lost along America’s beautiful, if unduly encumbered, waterways.
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