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By Mariko McDonald | October 9, 2008

So we all know the environment is in trouble, but what does the changing temperature of the ocean and the disappearance of a few thousand species have to do with us? A lot, as is illustrated by the humane and gripping documentary, “Upstream Battle.”

Opening with a protest during a shareholders meeting of Scottish Power in Scotland, the film follows the fight of four Native American tribes from Northern California: the Hoopa, Yurok, Karuk and Klamuth, as they try to save their ancestral fishing grounds. What happened to the fish, you may ask? Well, a lot, and none of it good. Basically there are four hydro-electrical dams set-up along the Klamuth river where the tribes are located, and these dams prevent the salmon from returning to their spawning grounds, create toxins in the reservoirs and starve the few fish that do manage to spawn of oxygen.

The impact these dams have had on the Native way of life is best illustrated by the fact that the Klamuth tribe, furthest upstream and now without any salmon whatsoever, had their reservation status revoked by the government. The film does an excellent job of putting a human face on a complicated issue, with each tribe represented by one or two key figures. Interview segments focus as much on the complicated issue at hand as one their personalities and personal attachment to the fight.

Where director Ben Kempas really scores is with the candid interviews with the PacifiCorp staff, notably re-licensing manager Toby Freeman, and Vice President Robin Furness who passed away during the filming of the documentary. Mr. Freeman at times seems to be toying with the filmmakers, aware that he is being cast as “the bad-guy”, but unfailingly pleasant and non-confrontational. While he might be working for “the wrong side”, he is never nasty or rude, but comes across more as a man caught in the middle, just trying to do his job.

The documentary is excellently structured and is able to break down a very complicated issue with some very big players, including Warren Buffet, without over simplifying things or condescending to the audience. At a time when the effects of globalization, the energy crisis and environmental crisis are finally starting to hit home, intelligent, even-handed documentaries like “Upstream Battle” are an essential part of the dialogue.

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