Ben Kempas’ Upstream Battle had its North American premiere at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and it has been making the rounds on the festival circuit. The documentary tells a powerful story about hope, survival, and fighting for what you believe in through peaceful demonstration.
The film shows the struggles of the Native American tribes, the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa, and Klamath, living along the Klamath River in Northern California and Southern Oregon, whose way of life is disappearing as a result of the detrimental effects caused by four hydroelectric dams, which not only make it difficult for the salmon to get upstream but also pollute the river. In 2002, the death of upwards of 70,000 salmon by toxic algae blooms was one of the worst kills in American history. The lack of salmon in the Native American’s diet causes health issues like diabetes, so it is a matter of life and death for these people.
When the film begins, PacificCorp, a subsidiary of Scottish Power, runs the dams. Representatives from the tribes traveled to Scotland during a shareholders’ meeting to make their case known, which is how the director learned of their plight and joined their cause. When the dams come up for a 50-year re-licensing, the Native Americans take their battle to governmental boards and the courts. PacificCorp tried negotiating a deal for the removal of two dams, but the tribes rejected the offer. It had to be all of them. In March 2006 Scottish Power sold PacificCorp to Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, and tribe representatives headed to Omaha, Nebraska in an effort to gain an audience with Mr. Buffet and the shareholders.
What was very compelling about the film is that Kempas gives fair treatment to all sides when it would have been easy to create villains. This was in part due to the different parties affected by the outcome. Oregon farmers who irrigated their farmlands via the dams would be losing their way of life if the dams were removed, leaving the viewer with the question “does one person’s way of life have more value than another’s?” Commercial fishermen were also involved because the shrinking salmon population made their jobs harder as more miles of coastline became restricted to protect the species.
The film comes to a satisfying end by closing a chapter rather than completing the tale. However, according to the film’s website, it was announced in November of 2008 that “Warren Buffett's PacifiCorp just signed an ‘agreement in principle’ with the federal and state governments which is aimed at the removal of all four dams on the Klamath River in 2020, pending approval by Congress.” I would be curious if the focus Upstream Battle brought to the issue played a part in this outcome. If so, it makes a strong case for the power documentaries can have. Even with a tentative outcome looming in the future, it doesn’t take away from the film’s enjoyment.