Salmon Return to Spawn, and a River Recovers

in 42nd Seattle International Film Festival

by Dennis West

The Seattle International Film Festival always showcases films produced in the Pacific Northwest of the United States (where Seattle itself is located); and this year’s edition, the 42nd, was no exception. One of the best of these works was the documentary The Memory of Fish, ably photographed and directed by Jennifer Galvin and Sachi Cunningham. The film screened as a world premiere, and the production team appeared after screenings in order to interact with audiences in informative question-and-answer sessions.

The management of water resources, such as lakes and rivers, currently represents one of the most pressing sociopolitical issues in the entire West of the United States, including the Pacific Northwest. Different segments of the citizenry in the West strongly voice their demands concerning the use of water as seen in the following specific examples: farmers in central and eastern Washington State rely on the Columbia River and its dams in order to irrigate their cash crops; the thirsty residents of Los Angeles, California, seek reliable sources of drinking water to maintain a booming population in a desert-like environment; and Native American nations in states on the Pacific Coast hold treaty rights allowing them to fish for salmon—a fundamental dimension of an ancient way of life—in perpetuity, or as long as the salmon continue to run in the many rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean.

In The Memory of Fish, co-directors Cunningham and Galvin examine the history of man’s relation to the once salmon-rich Elwha River in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula in the last approximately one hundred years. A century ago two hydroelectric dams were constructed on that river in order to generate electricity for nearby residents; but the towering dams—which were built without fish ladders—prevented anadramous trout and salmon runs from returning upriver to their ancient spawning grounds in order to reproduce. Consequently, over the years the salmon and trout runs dwindled. The specific species of native fish impacted included Chinook salmon, chum, coho, pink, steelhead, and sockeye.

The specific course of this depletion was meticulously recorded in dozens of notebooks by the avid sport fisherman Dick Goin, who since the 1940s had written down details about his daily catches on the river—for instance, the weight of the individual salmon that he caught daily. The Memory of Fish is a character-centered film; and the articulate Goin, who appears in the present time of the film as an octogenarian, is a fascinating character to follow. His biography as a committed activist opposing the dams and defending a free-flowing river and its fish provides the documentary with a riveting story arc in part because of the sympathy he elicits as a humble and able working-class man, a machinist, who for years depended on his amateur angling skills in order to feed his family.

The history of the dams themselves provides the documentary’s other, concomitant story arc—from their construction, as witnessed in old blueprints and photographs, to their removal in 2011 at a cost of $325 million. This removal at the time represented the most massive such project in world history. The film’s dramatic high point occurs in scenes employing actuality footage to show the dams being spectacularly blown up and some of the extensive rubble being removed.

While the filmmakers keep the focus on Goin and his activism, considerable socioeconomic and political contextualization concerning the pros and cons of a free-flowing river versus a dammed one is provided. Nevertheless, some important issues remain little examined, such as the stakes in these matters of nearby Native American communities (e.g., the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe), the economic importance of the two dams as electricity producers in the twenty-first century, or the Elwha’s current status as a recently undammed stream now containing considerable debris (e.g., steel rods) that presents hidden and life-threatening obstacles to sportspersons and wildlife.

The filmmakers break no new ground esthetically; but they have, using the documentarian’s conventional tools, achieved a captivating and concise record of one man’s efforts to restore a once teeming river to its free-flowing form. Cunningham and Galvin’s cinematography proves serviceable; and occasional striking images appear, such as underwater close-up views of life moving within salmon eggs, or long shots of salmon leaping majestically high from the surface of the water and futilely flinging themselves against a towering dam. Musician Gil Talmi creatively draws on both the Moog synthesizer and the mandolin to underscore the beauty and power of nature. Famed American actress Lili Taylor conducts the voice-over narration.

In their public pronouncements at the Seattle festival, Cunningham and Galvin stressed the educational potential of The Memory of Fish. And, indeed, their moving documentary seems destined to become a key text in the “Water Wars” currently unfolding in the American West.

Dennis West