Ashland Independent Film Festival movie review: 'A River Between Us' tells compelling story of 'the largest environmental restoration project in American history'

Among the amazing movies shown over this long weekend of the five-day Ashland Independent Film Festival, “A River Between Us,” premiering Saturday to a sold-out house at the Ashland Street Cinema, pioneers new ground with a tale of the long-polluted and dammed Klamath River, gradually healing, not with bills and policies, but through the mending of hearts among farmers, fishers and indigenous peoples.

This locally-produced gem portrays the long journey from polarized, politicized, hate-filled swamps to a community of people with common interests who have started to hear, respect and even care about each other as human beings — all of whom have the right to survive and thrive. 

You might not think a movie about water rights would move audiences to tears, but that’s exactly what happened, as former state Sen. Jason Atkinson of Central Point, a Republican, artfully and heartfully co-produced and narrated a tale of triumph for the human spirit. 

He calls it “the largest environmental restoration project in American history” and he clearly intends the film to energize that goal, as well as to dissipate ages-old animus between all the players on the Klamath, as he details the transformation into a range of diverse people who are finally starting to hear each other and support win-win outcomes for all. 

It’s not all rosy, to be sure. The four dams on the Klamath still stand, though they are expected to come down in maybe five to eight years, says Atkinson. In the meantime, pro-dam signs — “fight the dam scam” — also stand. 

PacificCorp, owner of the dams, still needs assurance of protection from liability before they take out the dams. Farmers of the vast upper Klamath need a “floor” on water, that is, a guarantee they will get an assured minimum of water for what they grow, so they can adjust their prices and practices and have a living for this and future generations, said co-producer and co-writer Jeff Martin. 

Klamath, Yurok and Hoopa tribes must have the dams (which produce no power) removed, and the stagnant water behind the dams freed, so salmon can swim and breed freely and uphold the tribe’s need for food and ages-old lifeways. 

The film does the immense service of putting the viewer in the shoes of all parties — and showing how (finally) people on all sides can hear and respect each other’s life-sustaining needs — so they “get,” as they did, that there is no solution to this long conflict, unless all parties agree to a common good. 

Finally, according to the film, the resolution of this complex conflict is not up to Congress or the Bureau of This ‘n' That, but it’s up to the people. When the people involved join in community, the government will follow — and that’s what this film beautifully shows. 

Avid fly-fisher Atkinson, whose family has had a cabin on the Klamath for five generations, says the film (and the initiatives in it) “show us a new way forward to solve a natural resources conflict. They show us the best in America, solving the most complicated conflict in a hundred-year water war.” 

In our present polarized political climate, we expect a documentary film, to show soundbites of bitter resentments — and there are some — but, said Atkinson, in a post-premiere interview — what made the emotional dam break was a state of “complete desperation” among the parties.

“It’s the only reason I narrated it, because it was so personal. The dams are only a metaphor of what was happening,” he says. “In the end, it will make everyone happy, except the extremes of the left and right.” 

The film alludes frequently to the partisan gridlock of Congress, blocking movement on key elements to settlement of the Klamath Water Wars. Asked if the necessary steps could be achieved by executive order of the President, Atkinson said, “Yes, and that’s why I made the movie.” 

Perhaps the most telling moments of the film come as leaders of tribes and water users organizations talk of how their children are on the same soccer teams and it slowly dawns on them that, hey, we are in this same community and it’s going to be this way forever. 

We see Becky Hatfield Hyde (cousin of the U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield) of the Yamsi Ranch of the Upper Klamath retelling how she and her family, who have “held” the land for generations, realize, that, not too long ago, the tribes held it and “something was wrong” and it had to be fixed, so the family started talking to the native peoples about working out a solution that works for everyone. 

She was moved to tears and so are we. This was an audience caught unawares by the power of this movie. This is the future of conflict resolution. There is this boat and we are all in it. 

In the film, farmers and Indians find themselves at the same potato festival in Klamath Falls, with Indians — never before invited to such an event — roasting salmon on an open fire and gifting it to farmers. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, long a participant in the drought-driven conflicts of the basin a decade ago, is shown humbled in gratitude for the new sense of community unfolding on its own, with no inspiration from political leaders. As he finishes his speech, he wipes tears from his eye. 

And so does everyone else.

Tickets to the final showing of the movie at the AIFF at 12:40 p.m. Monday, April 13, at the Varsity Theatre sold out. Seats will only be available through the rush line if any ticket holders don't show.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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