Local Sightings spotlight: River Ways

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There are a lot of very different programs in this year’s Local Sightings Film Festival. So, for the next few days leading up to the festival, I thought I’d spotlight a few movies and events to make sure nothing gets lost in all the excitement.

Today, it’s River Ways. This documentary film about the salmon runs and dam controversy in Eastern Washington does a truly impressive job of making the issue personal, understandable, and (important in a movie) a compelling story. Don’t miss it. You will listen to the news and regional politics – not just regarding fisheries and conservation – in a very different way. Plus, for those of you interested in the recent local agriculture movement, there’s a fascinating profile and opinion piece from a Washington state farmer (who you just might have met last year at the Puyallup Fair).

The film’s website has not been updated to list Local Sightings (boo), but you can see the crazy long list of all the other places nowhere near Washington state that deemed the film worthy of a screening here. (That is, the film has interest and merit beyond just being about issues in the Northwest.)

Here’s the description:

“River Ways” explores the lives of regular working people affected by the issue of whether to remove four dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington. Environmental groups and fishing interests criticize the dams for their negative impact on salmon populations, but agricultural communities dependent on the dams oppose efforts to remove them. Combining interviews with careful everyday observation, and set against the scenic backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, “River Ways” introduces us to a
set of characters with a surprisingly complex mix of perspectives. Frank Sutterlict, a Native American fisherman living in an encampment on the Columbia River, struggles to make ends meet in the face of dwindling salmon numbers. Ben Barstow, a family farmer in Washington, fears the effect of dam removal on his already marginal business. And Mark Ihander, a commercial fisherman, hangs on to an industry in economic decline. Other subjects include environmental activists, irrigators, sport fishermen, and salmon biologists. What emerges is a complex portrait of an issue that reaches to the heart of the ideological differences that characterize and divide the Pacific Northwest, and
indeed many environmental issues throughout the world.

And, from the press kit, here’s the director’s statement from Colin Stryker:

I first came across the issue of the Snake River dams in an environmental magazine in October of 2000. At the time, I was saving up some money for my first independent feature, kicking around some ideas, working on a few screenplays. When I read the article, I was immediately struck by the complexity of the issue, the variety of interest groups affected, and the depth of the emotions at stake. Within this seemingly
simple question of whether or not to remove several remote dams, lurked some powerful ideas about our use of natural resources in modern society, the relationship between our rural and urban sector, and our treatment of and obligations to Native Americans. I knew almost instantly that this was the topic about which I wanted to make my first feature film. I decided right away that the film had to be personal. What interested me about the topic was the way it lay at the intersection of a complex environmental issue – with all the corresponding political, economic, and social factors – and the very fundamental concept of ordinary people going about their lives and livelihoods.

This would not be a film that used a purely analytical approach – with lots of graphics, talking heads, and narration – but rather would pry into the nuanced, organic perspectives of those who had the most at stake in the issue. By getting to know the people affected by the issue, we would come to know the issue at its most sublime and visceral level. I also knew that the film had to be neutral with regard to the removal of the dams. Regardless of my own feelings on the issue, what interested about it was the variety of perspectives the issue represented, and how this reflected on society’s approach to environmental issues to begin with. The true understanding of the
issue that I sought would only be arrived at by presenting each of these perspectives with proper respect and sensitivity.

In November of 2000, while living in Los Angeles, I began a series of self-funded trips to the Pacific Northwest, to gather information about the issue, meet some of the characters involved, and develop a visual sense of the region, which I had never before visited. My goal ultimately was to find particular individuals who would represent the various interest groups involved. I would follow these individuals for a year, seeking not just to elicit their opinions about the Snake River dams, but to get a glimpse into their
lives and the stake they had in the issue. It took a great deal of perseverance, calling in favors, and many miles on my car to find folks who would allow me to document their lives for a year. But by the end of 2002, I had my subjects chosen. I packed up everything and moved to Portland, which would be my home base from which to make the film.

River Ways plays Local Sightings Tuesday, October 6 at 7pm. Get your tickets here.

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