When New Orleans flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was called a natural disaster. When South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba flooded as the result of a hydroelectric dam, it was called progress.
There are other differences between the two incidents, of course. One was an accident, the result of an engineering flaw; the other was “carefully” planned by engineers. One drew the attention of national and international media; the other has gone virtually unnoticed in a part of the world people rarely think about. Efforts to restore New Orleans to its former glory are underway; no such plans exist for the Cree and Métis nations affected by Manitoba Hydro’s decision to drown out a culture.
In Green Green Water, director Dawn Mikkelson (Treading Water and THIS Obedience) provides viewers with great insight into the toll of a man-made disaster. Mikkelson, a Minnesota filmmaker and activist, started from a place of curiosity about just how green and renewable the source of her electricity really was. As she traveled throughout northern Manitoba, she learned that there’s no such thing as “cheap” power – everything has a price. What she saw flicked on a switch of awareness: Individuals and communities were not only displaced by the rising waters, but also torn over whether to partner on future hydroelectric projects as a way to financially compensate for their ruined communities, or to resist further intrusions and cling to whatever shreds of their old way of life still remain.
The dams Mikkelson investigates have been in place since the 1970s, agreed to by a nation of people who had been told that the change in water levels would be nothing more than the length of a pencil. Documents were signed by community leaders who had been misled and uninformed. A generation has grown knowing nothing of their elders’ former way of life, knowing only of the legacy of pain.
The footage Mikkelson provides – a combination of recently shot film and amateur video from a pre-dam nation – is thoughtful, heartbreaking, and sometimes stunningly ironic. At a Public Utilities Commission hearing, an official announces his belief that to fully inform the public of what effects the hydroelectric project would produce would require poring through volumes of material, and that the amount of information could fill a book that he believed no one would really be interested in reading. In short, it would be too much work to really think about the true effects of the project; it was easier to simply go ahead and complete the work. As is too often the case when a decision involves using land for industrial purposes or honoring a culture that the majority doesn’t understand, economics prevailed.
At 86 minutes, the film sometimes meanders like a river and occasionally doesn’t flow properly. In particular, there are too many trips past a billboard advertising Manitoba Hydro’s assertion that they protect the environment, a message that is glaringly self-serving. But the overriding message is powerful enough to sustain this full-length documentary. Watch it with a group of friends. You’ll feel less guilty about the amount of energy it takes to run your DVD player.
Take Action: Mikkelson is currently raising money to increase distribution of the film. If you’d like to donate to this cause or purchase a copy of the DVD, visit greengreenwater.com. This URL also provides links to sitesrepresenting both sides of the story.
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