Title: Patagonia Rising
Director: Brian Lilla
Over the past century more than 45,000 large dams have redefined river corridors around the globe, taking fresh rainwater deposited for hundreds of years into the oceans and re-directing it for human purposes of energy and commerce. “Patagonia Rising” takes as its area of inquiry the fight over one such controversial plan in Chile’s famed wilderness. A well-meaning but dry and pedantic documentary, the movie doesn’t do much to bring fire, passion or interest to this story outside of a demographic consisting of the most ardent environmentalists.
Directed by Brian Lilla, the movie centers on a planned $7 billion project to build five dams and bring hydroelectricity to Chile’s remote frontier ranches. At issue are the effects upon the Pascua and Baker Rivers, free-flowing watersheds, fed by vast glacial systems, that could help make Chile a leader in sustainable energy development. Interviewing environmental impact scientists, renewable energy experts, various small farm owners and gauchos — the South American cowboys who seasonally tend the rough, windswept plains — “Patagonia Rising” attempts to put a face on what is sure to be the continued rise in global conflict over water and power.
Many of Lilla’s subjects have a hearty, Everyman nobility to them (“I have not asked anyone for bread, and that keeps me proud,” says one man),and certainly the striking natural beauty of Patagonia’s Andes mountains and plains provide scenic backdrop that occasionally catches the heart. But a big part of the movie’s problem is that it doesn’t succeed — or, indeed, really much try — to locate the universality in this specific tale, and make it a parable or example of greater environmental doom. There are nods here and there to the consequences of damming — how it impacts plankton levels in oceans, and on land can lead to lots of downstream erosion because less nutrient-rich sediment makes its way down these natural corridors — but there is simply not enough macro-level thought and pizzazz applied to this story.
Despite its nominal fair-mindedness, Lilla’s film also impugns those of dissenting opinion, showing an energy company spokesperson sipping nervously from water after delivering his stump-speech opinion. Left-leaning doc audiences may already be inclined to be distrustful of some of the claims of grand peasant benefit he and others are peddling, but by making involuntary assumptions and judgments about their motivations, Lilla only further undermines the credibility of his already formal, cool-to-the-touch portrait.
Written by: Brent Simon