SXSW Film: <em>Damnation</em>, a Documentary That's Testing the Waters of Corporate Social Responsibility

I came away from this film feeling I had truly learned something and that I was not being "sold" anything, yet the fact that the film was entirely supported by a "brand," Patagonia, left me intrigued.
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In 1935, FDR promoted the building of dams and this grew to include over 75,000 dams standing more than 3 feet tall throughout the United States. Many of these dams have outlived their usefulness, and many caused great damage to ecosystems and fish, especially salmon. The response to this for some has been civil disobedience and acts of environmental activism, which include painting huge cracks and scissors on the dams themselves, at great physical and legal risk to the members of groups such as Earth First. There is one particular CEO and company founder, who stands on the side of the environmentalists and puts his money where his mouth is by supporting civil democracy through action.

Yvon Chouinard's company, Patagonia, and his philosophy and commitment to environmentalism is directly linked to why his company exists. The very name of his company comes from a trip he took to Chile's Patagonia decades ago, a place which he still works to protect today. This commitment has now helped to produce a feature documentary, shown this week at SXSW in Austin, entitled, Damnation. Through the use of beautiful cinematography and authenticity on several levels, it educates the audience in a powerfully moving way. I came away from this film feeling I had truly learned something and that I was not being "sold" anything, yet the fact that the film was entirely supported by a "brand," Patagonia, left me intrigued.

During the panel discussion following the film, Yvon Chouniard, along with one of the filmmakers, the head of Patagonia's marketing and Vimeo's representative, all came together to tell the story of how this film is establishing an outside the box approach to both producing and distributing a film with a strong environmental message.

Firstly, it is stunning in the way it is filmed. The filmmakers were approached by Chouinard, and the scientific advisor, because of their previous works focusing on fishing. Included in the film is a member of Earth First, who painted cracks on dams which no longer served their purpose and which were in fact doing harm in various ways to the environment, specifically to salmon and fishes which once thrived in the rivers prior to the dams being built.

The US is actually now leading the way in dam removal, and the film focuses not only on what has been lost, at a price of millions of dollars, but also on how quickly the natural habitat and fish return once the dams are removed.

Gorgeous archives of the predam days, especially those of environmental activists Katie Lee, naked amongst the caverns and cliffs, which will soon be flooded, and her outspoken stance on freeing the rivers, made the film for me. Earth First activist, Mikal Jakubal also makes an appearance or two and is a delight to watch as he joyfully depicts close encounters with the law.

But as I watched the film, I never once thought of the brand, the company behind the film. Yet the fact that Patagonia would give creative freedom to the filmmakers, and the fact that those included in the making of the film are authentically engaged in hard-core environmental activism, made the story not only poignant, but I became convinced that their message was one that needs to be spread.

I had never thought much about dams and imagined they had been built to generate hydropower, which was necessary. I had no idea that tens of thousands of dams were built across the US and was somewhat ignorant about their extremely damaging impact on so many native communities and salmon. I had lived in the Pacific Northwest during Earth First's most active days and had heard about fish ladders and hatcheries, and had driven by a few huge dams, but I never had imagined how the still waters killed so much life when dams were put in place.

The filmmakers interview Native Americans whose spiritual and day-to-day lives are tied to the salmon, which have virtually disappeared. They interviewed a farmer who almost began to cry as he spoke of the beauty of the rivers coming back and the damage the dams had done. They filmed guerilla acts of environmental activism. And managed to capture the removal of a dam with dynamite. Damnation portrays the fictional "Monkey Wrench Gang" coming to life as we enter into the mindset of those who can no longer sit back and watch the planet and the rivers be destroyed. This, along with archival footage of other dams being blown up and removed, was juxtaposed with footage of the rivers flowing wildly and coming back to life.

When asked about why he wanted to back such a documentary, Yvon Chouinard said very seriously, "Propaganda." He felt that there had been so much disinformation about why dams were needed that it was important to counter that with images and information, which told the truth. When I asked him what he thought about other company CEOs and founders who claim to be socially responsible, he replied, "The elephant in the room is growth. We cannot just continue to grow and grow." When asked specifically about Patagonia, he responded, "Actually everyone should wear used clothes and then hand them down when done with them." This response is astonishing in itself for someone who has become successful selling sporting and outdoors clothes. But Choiunard is highly respected by fellow CEOs and his philosophy and book on how he began Patagonia is used in business schools across the US.

To me this did not feel like "branded" content and the filmmakers only agreed to take on the subject if they could have final cut and complete freedom to tell the story in an authentic way. Chouinard and Patgonia gave them that. But what is highly impactful is that Patagonia's stores and marketing architecture allow for the film to be released and distributed in a highly unusual way. There will be screenings in the stores, DVDs will be sold there and special interest and educational screenings will be held with NGOs and schools to spread the message about the importance of dam removal. Vimeo will also screen it on demand and it will be part of curated content, which will help audiences find films such as Damnation, which have environmental themes. A petition will be sent to President Obama to support the eradication of more unnecessary dams.

The film's message thus leads the audience to a call for action, but it also made me think a lot about the power that CEOs and companies have to do good. Sadly, not enough of them have such an authentically committed founder. Perhaps that should be a film in itself, the philosophy of those who do put their money where their mouth is and take action to support creative works, which educate us and help to make this world a better place. That is real impact. That is true activism. And Yvon Chouinard's life and work are directly tied to both.

How can you not trust a man, a CEO of a clothes company, who tells you to help save the Earth by buying and wearing used clothes and handing them down? At the screening of Damnation, I looked around and saw numerous Patagonia jackets on audience members, for the most part; the clothing was well worn and much loved. DamNation is produced by Patagonia in association with a Stoecker Ecological & Felt Soul Media Production and is set for theatrical release in select cities beginning in April. Directed by Ben Knight and Travis Rummel. Produced by Matt Stoecker and Travis RummelExecutive Producer: Yvon Chouinard.

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