a documentary film by Ben Kempas

Native Americans on the Klamath River
fight for their fish
– against an energy corporation.
Their struggle may trigger
the largest dam removal project in history.
> What's new?

"Since the beginning of time," they've been living along the Klamath River, in the far north of what's today called California. The Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa are among the few tribes in the United States who have managed to keep their traditions alive. Their culture is centered around a majestic fish: the Pacific salmon.

A hundred years ago, up to a million salmon would swim upstream to their spawning grounds each year. Today, only a few thousand return to the river. Four large hydroelectric dams cut off their path and turn the water into a toxic soup. In 2002, in one of the worst fish kills ever recorded in the U.S., almost 70,000 adult salmon died in front of the eyes of the Native Americans.

"If they're sick, we're sick," says Merv George, paddling in his dugout redwood canoe. Once again, the tribes' existence is in jeopardy. Their position is clear: for the fish to survive, the dams have to go. While the rest of the world considers the construction of ever larger hydroelectric plants, this could become the story of the biggest dam removal project in history.

Managers at PacifiCorp, the dams' operators, praise hydropower as a low-cost, climate-friendly source of energy, a valuable resource they say they couldn't afford to lose. "We're just borrowing water and returning it to a river," Toby Freeman claims. But now they are in trouble, too - the long-term license for the hydro project needs to be renewed. Conditions of such a license will be very expensive for the company - maybe too expensive.

Wendy George prepares a fishing net.

For tribal members like Merv, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Their quest to confront the owners of the dams leads them to a global energy giant in far-away Scotland. The anonymous corporation finally shows a human face, but soon after, it is sold again. PacifiCorp and the Klamath River dams are now part of the empire of Warren Buffett. Will tribal members manage to persuade the richest man in the world to save their salmon and their culture?

For almost two years, Ben Kempas closely followed key tribal members, utility managers, irrigators and commercial fishermen in their battle for a river. "I've found it fascinating how determined they all are to find a solution to a seemingly hopeless conflict," the filmmaker says. "We've been witnessing how stereotypes don't stand the test of time. And we've seen some astonishing alliances between old enemies."

Preview Production___ARTE___BR___FFF Bayern___HFF Mü