Stranger Than Fiction: "Upstream Battle" - Jan. 13, 2009
Q&A with director Ben Kempas
New York, NY
January 13, 2008
Tuesday night was the first screening of 2009 and new season of Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center. It’s been since last spring that I last reported from STF. Upstream Battle is story of the battle over the use of the Klamath River, where Pacific salmon have swum up to their spawning grounds and the people of four Native American tribes there (the Hoopa Valley, Yurok, Karuk and Klamath) struggle against a multinational corporation (PacifiCorp) that threatens this beautiful and natural phenomena. Director Ben Kempas (and co-host of D-Word) does an excellent job telling all sides of this open-ended story. “It was important to me that you get to know all these various parties that are involved and then make up your own mind,” Kempas said during the Q&A. Below are highlights from the rest of the discussion led by STF’s Thom Powers.
Powers: How did you get connected with the tribes?
Kempas: I have a good friend who does environmental PR work…He got asked by these tribes from North America to help them reach the British media while they were about to confront Scottish Power at their annual general meeting. I heard that and it instantly sounded like this David and Goliath-like story. I went with it and met these people and instantly connected with them and it kept me busy for the next three years.
Powers: When approaching a story dealing with Native Americans, you’re approaching a story dealing with layers of history, an indigenous culture that’s not even that well-known in our own country. What were the things you had to go through to get yourself into that world? What were the challenges?
Kempas: Just listen…I met them in Scotland and they invited me over…at the time of their annual renewal ceremony, which you actually don’t get to see in the film because it’s so sacred that you shall not take any pictures of it…That was there most important time of the year that they shared with us. We got to know all the people before we even got our camera…I think that was part of the getting access thing. Of course the corporation was much more difficult to than the tribes.
Powers: How was that negotiated? How skeptical of you were they and given you had spent so much time with the tribes…what was it like for you to open yourselves to the other point of view?
Kempas: I just focused on what I was interested on. There’s so many more parties in the basin that are involved in these settlements…there’s environmental organizations, there’s all the government agencies…I really just wanted to focus on the tribes mostly because I coming from Germany didn’t have a clue about Native Americans at the time. There was so much to be said about their culture, other than there all drug-addicted and that they run casinos now, all these kind of media clichés. The corporation…was interested in references, they wanted to see previous films. They actually wanted contacts of protagonists in previous films so they could inquire if they had been treated fairly…Also at the time, they were in a transition period where they already knew that they were going to be sold to Warren Buffett, but they still had to report to their bosses in Scotland (who) didn’t have a problem to say yes to this documentary, because they knew they would be getting rid of the company soon anyway….David Kvamme, the spokesman over at PacifiCorp, who you briefly see in the film, he does corporate videos for the company and considers himself a filmmaker as well, so I think he just wanted to support me in that way.
Powers: Has he commented on the finished film?
Kempas: They’ve regretted that we didn’t put in some footage of a dam that he showed us on the other river that they actually agreed to having removed as an example…We had it in the film for a long time, but then people got too confused because it seemed like they were going to remove a dam on the Klamath River…Toby (Freeman, the relicensing manager for PacifiCorp) liked the film. Toby would have like to come to Toronto but at the time that these confidential settlement negotiations were at such a delicate stage they felt they couldn’t do that. I know the film has gone quite high up in the corporate ladder. The CEOs of PacifiCorp and MidAmerican, their parent company, have seen it. Somebody told me that they wouldn’t be surprised if it had gone all the way up to Warren Buffett.
Powers: There’s an agreement now to remove the dams theoretically. Are the stakeholders in this optimistic that’s going to happen? What do they see as other challenges making that happen?
Kempas: The next big challenge is to get Congress to say yes to all of this, which is going to be tough in a time of the energy crisis. Can you really let go of a renewable resource? All parties have agreed upon that on the river. In the basin, you’ve got this new level of people that needs to be convinced.
Audience Question: Can you talk a little bit more about where your sympathies lay?
Kempas: I just really don’t like these black and white documentaries, these activist videos that tell you what to think. It was important to me that you get to know all these various parties that are involved and then make up your own mind. Obviously you can tell from the film which side my heart is on.
Audience Question: As a European, was it easier for you to make this film than if you were an American director?
Kempas: Yes…these guys, they’ve come all the way over from Germany, we should at least listen to them kind of thing…I think that was the same with the tribes and the corporation…It was this curiosity thing. They recognized that someone had come from that far to look into the story. Maybe that gives you a different level of respect of something. Maybe because I’m not a white U.S. filmmaker, I wasn’t so much perceived by the tribes as a white person as maybe others are. I can only guess at that. I don’t know.
Audience Question: How do you approach shooting scenes? Everything seems to be at the right place at the right time.
Kempas: I often was surprised myself that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. (I asked) FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, about when exactly they were going to release a certain document and they would tell me. So I knew what day I had to be with certain people…When the decision by the judge came out…I phone Craig (Tucker, the environmentalist in the film)…and asked him before you call Wendy (George, wife of Merv George in the film)…can you wait until we’re there? I did these kind of little manipulations. He would have called her anyway, but I wanted to make sure we were in the room with the camera before the phone call would come.
Powers: When you started off, did you know you were getting into something that would be open-ended or did you have some kind of sense the story could be told quickly?
Kempas: I thought it was going to be told more quickly. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I originally thought I’d do a half-hour reportage for German television. It just became bigger and bigger.