August 11th, 2014
First off, I don’t think that’s saying much. The vast majority of environmental documentaries tend to be devoid of story, humorless, preachy, or so preachy as to be dishonest. “Damnation” has a perspective that captures the past century of development in America, but not in a plodding didactic way. It doesn’t just mention Edward Abbey, it is infused with his spirit. It doesn’t just tell about what existed before the Glen Canyon Dam flooded an incredible archeological resource, it shows you through the footage and personal journey of three people that reaches into your heart. It doesn’t just speak of protest—it documents with moments of hilarity pranksters pulling incredible middle-of-the-night dam graffiti stunts. And it amazingly manages to create a voice that plays to both ends of the demographic spectrum – in touch with twenty-somethings with the rebellious pranks, but also playing to the oldest of nature lovers with its dignity. After viewing it a second time on Friday evening at our screening in Los Angeles hosted by the La Cretz Foundation of UCLA I’m even more impressed. I’m sure the odds on it getting an Oscar nomination are long, but I intend to lobby everyone I know in the documentary world. Yes, it is that good.
THE RIGHT WAY TO APPRECIATE NATURE. Katie Lee, star of “Damnation,” in 1957 paying homage in her own special way to a tremendous natural resource, before the Glen Canyon Dam desecrated it.
“ED WOULD SHIT HIS PANTS”
If there’s one character in “Damnation” who truly steals the show it’s nonagenarian Katie Lee. You get to see her naked on the Colorado River in the mid-1950’s, taking a rafting trip just before a major section was destroyed by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Her opening line is her reply to the question of whether she’s ever met Floyd Dominy, who was Director of the Bureau of Reclamation in the 60’s and played a significant role in the Glen Canyon project. She replies no, but if she ever did she would, “cut his balls off.” She’s awesome.
In the post-screening panel discussion Matt Stoecker, producer and co-creator of the movie, said she was on a panel discussion for a screening this spring. When asked what Edward Abbey (whom she knew) would have thought of the film she said, “Ed would shit his pants.”
That’s how much spirit the movie has. It’s truly excellent.
Watching it on Friday night at our Los Angeles screening it made me realize the first time you watch a movie you are drawing impressions, trying to decide if you like it. If you do like a movie, then the second time through you get to admire it. Which is what I found myself doing on Friday night.
If I had to pick one word to describe the movie it would be, “dignified” (yes, despite Katie’s outlandishness). In a world where everyone involved in making issue-oriented movies is trying to pack them full of celebrities (and missing the mark by a mile as “Years of Living Dangerously” did so sadly this past spring) or over-blowing conflict and conspiracy (like a certain fracking film), or unwilling to delve into cultural forces behind destructive behavior (“The Cove” was fun but was an exercise in political correctness when it came to looking into the eyes of a culture that tolerates dolphin slaughter) this movie was simply honest, humble and accurate.
There was no vilification. They let “the bad guys” speak in their own voice, and even put them in a fairly understanding light — showing how they were mostly a product of their times. The country was young, the Depression and World War II did certain things to the psyche of the nation, and a pathway was pursued for the times. No one in the film appeared proud of having destroyed parts of nature. The environment just wasn’t in their thinking. It was an age when wetlands were called swamps and rainforests were jungles. I remember that era. It finally began to change when I was a kid in the 1960’s and the modern environmental movement emerged. For the most part the developers weren’t evil, just myopic.
TIME TO PUSH FOR AN OSCAR NOMINATION
Since making my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” in 2006 for which we never deluded ourselves into thinking about the Oscars I’ve had to witness all sorts of dishonest, massively hyped, deeply polarizing screeds and polemics receive Oscar nominations. “Jesus Camp” and “Gasland” are two that immediately come to mind. Even the Oscar winning “Bowling for Columbine,” wasn’t brilliant storytelling, only loud argumentation.
Surely the world hasn’t devolved to such a state that only the screaming liars receive recognition. This movie has convinced me it is still possible to create an engaging and popular environmental documentary that works (btw, they won the Audience Appreciation Award at South By Southwest Film Festival where they had their premiere). The world needs this film to get all the recognition possible so it can serve as a model in so many ways — not just for environmental filmmaking, but also in educating the world on this entire futuristic trend of dam removal.
We had a great final question in the Q&A on Friday from a young guy from China. He told about the reckless dam construction going on there, then asked if this movie will be shown in China. It needs to be. The Chinese need to see this aspect of the future — that dams are a thing of the past. They need to know that this country, that went dam crazy in the 50’s is no longer building ANY dams, and is instead hard at work removing them with great success.
Let’s all get to work in spreading the word and seeing if it can end up at the Oscars. I’ve never seen a more deserving documentary. Ever.