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Patagonia's new line of activism is documentary 'DamNation'

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'DamNation' is the first film Patagonia has produced
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Patagonia is famous for its high-end outdoor gear, selling its 3-in-1 River Salt Jacket for $549 and a Special Edition Diamond Quilt Snap-T Pullover for $199. In the coming weeks, the luxe retailer will begin stocking a very different item on its shelves: DVDs of "DamNation," Patagonia's self-financed and award-winning environmental documentary.

Long admired as one of the most socially accountable companies in America, Patagonia in recent years has become more of an outspoken advocate for environmental and corporate responsibility, letting shoppers openly inspect its supply and manufacturing chain and even encouraging potential customers to stop buying its products and recycle, repair and reuse the clothes they already possess.

"DamNation," the first film the company has produced, takes Patagonia's activism to a higher level, and its release will be linked to a petition urging the federal government to tear down what Patagonia calls "deadbeat dams."

The movie opens in limited release theatrically May 9 in New York and Portland, Ore., debuting in Los Angeles on May 16. "DamNation" will be screened for free in and for sale at most of Patagonia's 30 retail outlets on June 5, where the DVD will be listed at $24.99 (or $29.99 for a Blu-ray version). A day later, "DamNation" will become available on the streaming site Vimeo for $9.99.

Patagonia is supporting the documentary's release with an extensive social media campaign that hopes to take advantage of the company's fervent (if not well-heeled) fans, hosting scores of word-of-mouth screenings for organizations such as the Arkansas Canoe Club, Los Padres ForestWatch and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

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"We're not going to be getting any money back on this," said Patagonia's 75-year-old founder, Yvon Chouinard, whose privately held company bankrolled the film's approximate $500,000 budget and more expensive marketing push. "It's just propaganda."

"DamNation," which suggests that the more than 80,000 American dams do far more ecological harm than good, is hardly a conservationist diatribe. Directed by Ben Knight and Travis Rummel, the thoroughly researched documentary has won top awards at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. Early reviews have been enthusiastic.

Made over the course of three years, "DamNation" argues contrary to popular belief that hydroelectric power isn't environmentally clean or efficient, that reservoirs formed by dams release vast amounts of harmful methane (owing to decomposing organic material underwater) and that costly fish ladders and hatcheries scarcely mitigate the damage dams cause to spawning wild salmon. Dams ostensibly built to boost recreational opportunities, furthermore, don't necessarily permit the same, as the filmmakers find out when they kayak up to one dam's navigable locks and are assumed to be domestic terrorists.

The movie's on-screen partisans, who include former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, recommend that the most responsible action is to tear down several large dams and let nature and the subsequently unstopped rivers follow their natural courses. "DamNation" chronicles how quickly Chinook salmon return after the sizable Elwha Dam in Washington is demolished.

Those who want to preserve dams say they play a critical role in flood control, maintain the water supply and benefit shipping and recreation. Supporters furthermore argue that dams not only generate necessary and relatively clean energy but also provide work for people who would become unemployed if the dams were removed.

Chouinard said he became focused on the downside of dams when Patagonia tried to reverse the ecological demise of the Ventura River, not far from the company's Southern California headquarters. Chouinard in the late 1990s used Patagonia's name and money in newspaper ads to advocate for the removal of the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River; it was torn down in 1999, and the native ecosystem gradually has been restored.

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"That's the reason I'm in business," said Chouinard, an avid fly fisherman who recently returned from a fishing trip to British Columbia. "I couldn't care less about making more money or making more clothes. I want to use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis."

He said he was inspired to make the movie out of frustration with the political process. "You can write letters to your elected officials all day long but they don't even read them," Chouinard said.

At the 2011 Wild & Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, Calif., Chouinard started talking with Matt Stoecker, an environmental activist committed to freeing rivers. "We were talking about the need to show the destruction caused by dams and the amazing things that happen when you remove a dam — including seeing a salmon jump up a river where a dam used to be," Stoecker said. Just like coal-fired power plants, Stoecker said, dams were an idea eclipsed by progress. "It was time to phase them out."

Chouinard and Stoecker's timing was propitious, as three large dams were about to be razed, which had the potential of turning an inherently uncinematic topic — large cement structures that simply sit there — into a visual story. But Chouinard and Stoecker, who served as one of the film's producers and directed its underwater photography, struggled to find a willing documentarian.

Knight, who with Rummel had made smaller films about fishing, had two immediate concerns: He saw no way to make the issue compelling, and he worried about becoming a Patagonia shill.

"Our first instinct was no, and we told them so," Knight said. "It was just too daunting, and it just seemed too difficult to humanize a story about dams. And it's not every day that a clothing company comes out to say it wants to make a documentary."

As they kept considering the topic, though, Knight and Rummel were drawn to the idea of following a dam's destruction, and using that event as the film's organizing principle. "We thought, at least there's a beginning and an end," said Knight, who narrates "DamNation."

They were promised editorial independence from Chouinard but then had to figure out a way to film the dams.

"We honestly had to do a lot of sneaking around," Knight said. "Dams are really unwelcoming places."

He said that even without Patagonia looking over his shoulder, he was mortified when he and Rummel showed up in their kayaks wearing matching hoodies made by the company — "We bought them," Knight said, "as they didn't send us free clothing once" — which made it look like they were promoting the clothing. "But it's not a branded movie by any stretch," Knight said.

Chouinard said "DamNation" ultimately builds on what almost every child was taught by his or her parent. "If you make a mess, you clean it up. You don't just walk away from it," he said. The time has come, he said, to tear down, rather than build, more dams.

"I hope this film leads to a revolution," Chouinard said. "A revolution about how we think about our water, and how we think about our rivers."

john.horn@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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