‘Patagonia Rising’: New Doc Explains When Not to Give a Dam

Locals at the tip of Chile battle global energy giant to save environmental wonderland.

Lake Cachet II and Colonia Glacier in Chile

The Colonia Glacier in Chile may have dodged the threat of a proposed dam, in part thanks to the documentary Patagonia Rising. (Photo: Courtesy of First Run Features)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

A day after the documentary Patagonia Rising premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival last year, the film’s director, Brian Lilla, learned he might be forced to an unfortunate postscript. Patagonia Rising details the fight put up by the denizens of the rural, southern tip of Chile against the proposed construction of five dams that would provide hydroelectricity from the fresh-water-rich region to the industrialized north.

The Chilean government’s decision to approve the HidroAysen project in May of 2011 would seem to have tagged an unhappy ending onto Patagonia Rising. In retrospect, the government’s go-ahead for the dams was quite possibly the most Lilla could’ve asked for as a filmmaker.

“It all has been very serendipitous,” Lilla tells TakePart on May 6, 2012, five days after the dam project was put on hold indefinitely. After being screened extensively in Chile for the past year, the film may have played a small part in forestalling the dam construction.

“Our main goal was to make a documentary that could inform the debate and somehow impact the decisions,” says Lilla. An American based in Oakland, California, Lilla is careful not to give Patagonia Rising (which opens in New York this week) full credit for influencing Chilean energy policy. He notes: “The last time a big group of Americans came down [to Chile] and whispered in their ears, they ended up with a dictator in office.”

But the filmmakers did team with organizations such as the Patagonian Defense Council and Conservacion Patagonica to spread the word about Patagonia Rising, which gives a voice to a group of Chilean citizens that is largely cut off from the outside world.

Living off the land at the geographical point where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet, the community made up largely of gauchos and lumber workers lacks modern trappings such as electricity and telecommunications. But its days are spent in surroundings considered to be among the planet’s greatest environmental wonders.

“The place just blew my mind,” Lilla says of his first visit to Patagonia in 1996. An interest in climbing the Andes led him to the famed glaciers nearby. Nearly a decade later, when he was offered the opportunity to make a film about the Italian/Spanish energy company Enel-Endesa’s plans to turn the pristine Baker and Pascua rivers into a power source for the urbanites 1,600 miles north in Santiago, Lilla knew exactly what was at stake. The development could have a devastating impact on the region’s water supply, and its rare and endangered flora, fauna and fish species that depend upon that water.

One thing more complex than the ways the proposed dams could destroy the Patagonian ecosystem is the process that the project has gone through since that fateful day in May 2011. An interminable cycle of approvals have been rescinded by citizen appeals, fueled by thousands of people protesting in the streets. Lilla thinks the fight is not over in Chile and believes the issues raised in Patagonia Rising are in play many places outside South America.

“We’ve had all these wars around petroleum for the last 20 years, and I always say, you could raise the price of gas to like eight dollars a gallon and people will get mad,” says Lilla. “But if you turn someone’s water off, you’ll kill your neighbor in three days. We’re already there in certain places on the planet. My hope is all of us start thinking about our relationship to water more.”

Who will ultimately win the battle for the natural resources of Patagonia? Leave you predictions, and the reasoning behind them, in COMMENTS.

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