By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
The struggle over the Klamath River's dams may soon hit the big screen.
Independent filmmakers from Munich, Germany, have been documenting the process as Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp seeks to renew a 50-year federal license to operate its dams on the waterway. Area tribes, fishermen and farmers have sought to block the federal permit, pointing to water quality problems, a 2002 fish kill when more than 60,000 salmon washed up on the river banks and last year's commercial salmon fishing closure along 700 miles of the West Coast.
For Ben Kempas, the story started in Scotland in 2005, when a group of northwest California tribal representatives showed up to protest outside the annual shareholders meeting of Scottish Power, the owner of the dams at the time. A friend doing environmental public relations work in Scotland asked Kempas to help detail the issue.
In Glasgow, Kempas watched tribal members attempt to show shareholders the cost of removing the dams by handing out two-pence pieces to represent the two pence per share expense of such an effort.
He observed a traditional Klamath River salmon bake at a Glasgow home's backyard.
"It just sounded like a great story instantly," the 33-year-old filmmaker said. "So I just grabbed a camera."
Kempas and filmmaker Magdalena Hutter, 27, have since traveled along the river, meeting with those involved in the process, trekking from the river's mouth one day to the upper basin the next, hauling camera equipment to interviews, heading to Omaha, Neb., earlier this month for another tribal protest at another company shareholder's meeting.
But the story applies beyond the local region.
"It works on many levels. The importance of food, the importance of water," Kempas said, noting indigenous people throughout the world who rely on salmon and other natural resources. "In this basin, you have this kind of microcosm that reflects many things of global importance."
PacifiCorp's relicensing process for its dams, though, remains unique in one way.
"If the dams are to come down, this will be the biggest dam removal in history," Kempas said.
The film aims to show all of the story's angles, including farmers' struggles and PacifiCorp employees' concern about their jobs during corporate takeovers, for instance.
"This is a hugely complex issue," Kempas said. "So we're trying to tell it through characters that people identify with."
Those include a tribal member who lives in the woods without power and fishes with a traditional redwood canoe. Another balances modern and traditional lifestyles, racing jet boats and using a traditional canoe, singing the tribe's old songs and playing in a rock band.
The film also aims to showcase tribal cultures.
"What really amazed me is how much of the Native American culture is still intact here," Kempas said. "There's very little known about it in Europe."
Kempas wants viewers to learn not only about the river and the dams, but also about that culture.
"They should no longer think, teepee' or casino,'" he said. "This is not just an environmental issue. It's also an issue of tribal sovereignty."
With their work to remove the dams, Kempas said, tribal members seek to protect their rights as sovereign nations.
"All of these rights are infringed daily. Trying to secure those rights are a fight for sovereignty. What use is the right to fish if there are no fish for you to catch?" Kempas said.
Karuk Tribe campaign coordinator Craig Tucker agreed, pointing to the impacts of other energy projects in China, India and Chile.
"In a lot of those cases, the people who are bearing the highest costs or carrying the biggest burdens are indigenous people," said Tucker, who wants to see the film put international pressure on the U.S. to remove the dams from the Klamath River. "What's our history on human rights? We enacted one of the biggest genocides on Native Americans here and I'd argue that genocide is ongoing."
The next stage involves editing, when Kempas will hole up in a room for a couple of months to piece the story together. He aims to release the film in Europe this fall. He also plans to show it throughout the Klamath River basin and put it on DVD, with bonus tracks of side stories.
The tale of the struggle over the river's dams, though, remains the focus of the movie that carries the working title of "Upstream Battle."
"It's this David against Goliath story," Kempas said. "Small tribes against the big corporation."
"But one should remember that David won that particular struggle," he added of the Biblical story. "Let's see if that happens here, as well."
To learn more about the upcoming documentary on the Klamath River, visit www.upstreambattle.com.