Description from TIFF 2008 catalog by Thom Powers:
Since the beginning of time, Pacific salmon have swum up the Klamath River to their spawning grounds. A few generations ago, there were a million salmon per season. Today there are only a few thousand. Four hydroelectric dams in Northern California and Oregon have cut off their path and turned the water into a toxic soup. In 2002, as many as seventy thousand salmon died from these conditions in one of the worst fish kills in American history. One of the most haunting images in Upstream Battle is that of salmon leaping out of the water, only to smack into the dam. Director Ben Kempas tells the remarkable story of the battle over the use of this river, in which average citizens struggle against a multinational corporation that appears as impenetrable as its dams.
One leader of the citizen’s crusade is Merv George. He is a member of the Hoopa tribe, whose people have fished the salmon since long before there was a California. George is a witty and charismatic embodiment of both the modern and the traditional. He plays in a rock ‘n’ roll band, but also hunts woodpeckers to make ceremonial objects from their feathers. His wife Wendy equals him in charm, feistiness and devotion to upholding Hoopa ways. Their tribe has managed to maintain its traditions while so many other pre-colonial people have lost theirs. But the Hoopa culture is largely based around fishing salmon. “If they’re sick, we’re sick,” says George.
This quarrel could easily have been framed as a classic David and Goliath confrontation, but Upstream Battle is wonderfully nuanced, acknowledging the complexity of the situation. The other stakeholders in this ecosystem include farmers who rely on the water for irrigation; the neighbouring tribes of Yurok, Karuk and Klamath; and commercial fishermen who catch the salmon at sea. The film manages to humanize those on all sides, including the corporate employees whose own livelihoods are in flux over changing owners.
When the dam licence comes up for renewal, George and his allies pursue a once-in-a-lifetime chance to force the new owner, billionaire Warren Buffett, into the largest dam removal project in history. It may seem like an upstream battle, but so are most battles worth fighting.
About the director:
Ben Kempas was born in Stuttgart and studied documentary filmmaking at the University of Television and Film Munich. He directed the feature-length documentaries To Be a Nation Again (99) and The Loch Long Monster (01) for television. Upstream Battle (08) is his theatrical documentary debut.
Visit the film’s official website: www.upstreambattle.com/