‘Return of the River’ reprise


Jimmy Hall


Since the demolition of the Elwha Dam in 2012, one film has traveled around the world to share its story, and will once again have the opportunity to do the same with a local special screening.

Jessica Plumb, director of the “Return of the River,” which chronicles the process of the Elwha Dam take down, will return to screen the acclaimed film and answer questions from the viewing audience.

The hour-plus-long film premiered at the 2014 Port Townsend Film Festival as its opening night film. From there, it reached at least 25 other festivals, as well as other appearances and screenings where Plumb had appeared to speak about the film.

Since film festival weekend Sept. 21 - 23, the film has been screened more than a dozen times at The Rose Theatre and other venues. The film follows a group of activists as they attempt to change the public opinion of a town and nation to bring down the Elwha River dam. Through their efforts, the community comes to a consensus, setting the river free and showing the way to a more sustainable future.

“At the time the film premiered, the social and political stage surrounding the dam’s removal was winding down, but the science was just beginning,” Plumb stated in a Fort Worden press release. “In October, I’ll have updated results from ongoing fish studies and more to share!”

As a Port Townsend-based filmmaker and a graduate of the Goddard Masters of Fine Arts Program, Plumb will answer questions following the event, at the request of Fort Worden. Plumb said the screening coincides with the salmon season.

As an Olympic Peninsula residing in Port Townsend, Plumb was instantly interested in the story the Elwha River Dam's removal.

“I’ve grown to truly love this environment, the national park at our doorstep, and the incredible wilderness,” Plumb said. “I found myself learning about the unprecedented restoration effort.”

For Plumb, the seeds were planted when she visited China, where the biggest dam on the planet was completed on the Yangtze River. When she visited the Elwha River, she noticed the reverse process was about to begin. Plumb was hooked by the desire to film the process and story surrounding the event.

Finding her subjects came from working with John Gussman, the film’s director of photography, who previously had encounters with the subject but began contacting key players in the event.

“My goal was to tell this story from a diverse array of voices. To tell it as a chorus, rather than trying to find a villain and a hero,” Plumb said. “There were many heroes of the Elwha River. Its success story was made possible by many different people and groups. The film was an effort to tell that unusual success story.”

Plumb and her crew strived to interview anyone they could, including the Lower Elwha Tribe, the Citizens Advisory Committee in Port Angeles, and local and national politicians.

“We spent a couple years to fill out the circle as much as possible,” Plumb said. “At the end of that process … there was one missing voice, which was the voice of nature itself. That’s how the river became the narrator of the film.”

During the past four years, the film has screened on every continent except Antarctica, with Plumb attending for speaking engagements.

“The staying power of the Elwha story has a lot to do with the fact that, as an environmental filmmaker, I had the rare opportunity to witness and tell a story of hope from beginning to end,” Plumb said. “Those stories are few and far between.”

She said the story has proven to inspire those from various backgrounds, hitting the cores of those who watch it throughout the years. During many screenings, Plumb has been approached by others who want to share the story of their local river or a community dilemma about a natural resource.

Plumb said bringing the film back, four years after its premiere, allows her to talk about what has transpired over that time, as well as all the information along with it. For instance, Plumb said the first complete fish survey done by snorkeling the entire river was finished just a week ago.

In 2014, the social and political issues were coming to a close, while the scientific work on the river was just beginning.

“That’s the one question that audiences have, is, ‘How is it going?’ And the answer is, ‘Surprisingly well,’” Plumb said.

Plumb invites an audience for a screening of the documentary at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Joseph F. Wheeler Theater, as she shares the results of ongoing scientific studies mapping the effects of the Elwha Dam removal on the river's ecosystems and native species.

The screening is presented by Fort Worden, Goddard College, WWU's Academy for Lifelong Learning and the Port Townsend Film Festival.

Admission is a suggested donation of $10 at the door, which opens at 6:30 p.m.

A question-and-answer session with Plumb will follow the film.


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