‘Dammed to Extinction’ filmmaker shares challenges in creating documentary

Posted 5/8/19

After director Michael Peterson screened his documentary “Dammed to Extinction” in the Wheeler Theater at Fort Worden State Park May 4, he told the packed-house crowd it was the first time his film had been seen by the public.

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‘Dammed to Extinction’ filmmaker shares challenges in creating documentary

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After director Michael Peterson screened his documentary “Dammed to Extinction” in the Wheeler Theater at Fort Worden State Park May 4, he told the packed-house crowd it was the first time his film had been seen by the public.

Peterson took time to thank the absent Steven Hawley, author of “Recovering a Lost River: Removing Dams, Rewilding Salmon, Revitalizing Communities,” for “literally writing the book” on which his film was based, before assuring his audience that the film would eventually be available on DVD and Blu-Ray, after it had completed its run on the film festival circuit.

The film’s first stop is the Seattle International Film Festival, running from May 16 through June 9, but Peterson noted it’s been invited to screen at one or more festivals without even being asked for entry fees.

“Deb asked if she could get a sneak preview here,” Peterson said, referring to Debra Ellers of the North Olympic Orca Pod activist group. “And I’ve been asked how someone with my upbringing could be against damming.”

Peterson elaborated that he grew up in Eastern Washington, where irrigation and electrical generation dams “are part of the culture” and “sacred cows,” but both his film and his post-film discussion panel included Carrie Chapman Nighthawk Schuster, an elder with the Palouse Tribe, who talked about how damming the Snake River affected her people’s culture.

Schuster noted that her people and the other tribes receive a ceremonial allotment of salmon, regardless of how many salmon there are in circulation, and she’s confronted her own tribal council over what she sees as their complacency.

“I’ve asked them, ‘What will you do when there’s not enough salmon for you to get your quota?’” Schuster said.

Schuster’s son, Palouse Chief Jesse Nightwalker, said the dams’ harm to his people is so profound that “we should be on an extinction list, too,” which echoed the comments of one audience member, a Native American who relies on salmon for his living, who was applauded as he condemned “the cultural genocide of the indigenous peoples” through the diminishment of salmon populations.

Although she credited the Nez Perce Tribe with listening to her arguments against damming, Schuster acknowledged that the money that the tribes receive for agreeing to dams is often sorely needed to counter unemployment among their peoples.

Peterson and Ellers agreed that Pacific Northwest state legislators who speak on behalf of damming are listening to corporate interests more than to voters, with Ellers even going so far as to brand it “the salmon industrial complex,” and Peterson alluding to the “errors and omissions insurance” he’s taken out, since he expects some of those politicians might sue him.

With all these complex factors playing a part in diminishing the salmon and orca populations, Peterson described his greatest challenge in making “Dammed to Extinction,” was to narrow his focus down to the four dams on the Snake River, even though reducing pollution levels and restoring other habitat areas would also benefit those species.

“There was literally too much story to tell,” Peterson said. “But this is only just beginning. I hope to have a more complete edit of this film by the fall, and if we’re able, there might even be a follow-up film.”

To learn more about “Dammed to Extinction,” visit dammedtoextinction.com.

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