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A Conversation with Filmmaker Christopher Beaver

On Friday September 13, 2013 The Bay Institute is hosting a San Joaquin Celebration called Welcoming Back Salmon, with a special screening of Tales of the San Joaquin.

Filmmaker with penchant towards vanishing lakes and river recalls restoration efforts for the San Joaquin River, plus discusses new films Racing To Zero, and Tulare Lake.

By Neila Columbo


Photo by Denise Zmekhol.

Released in 2011, Tales of the San Joaquin – A River Restored tells the story of the San Joaquin River, from its source in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the San Francisco Bay, as its fate lies in the balance. Once the historical birthplace for scores of salmon, the San Joaquin now runs completely dry in two separate sections of the original river channel due to water diversion. Filmmaker Christopher Beaver discusses evolving developments with Green Planet Films since the release of the film and possibilities for the river’s eventual restoration, as well as new projects he is currently filming.

Q: Since the film’s release, have there been any further efforts or proposals to restore the San Joaquin River?

A: There is a measure of positive news to share. As I consider the story of this film will be told in chapters, as one chapter after another. I recently filmed a new section to the original story, which culminated in early December. Currently, the way the river is set up, the fish are actually not allowed to travel all the way upriver to their original spawning areas. There is a barrier across the river near a placed called Hills Ferry that holds them back. Because of the way the river dries up, the water tapers off, so at Hills Ferry essentially a giant wire fence in the river allows water to flow through, but not fish. In a sense, as I understand it, it is to protect the fish, as the California Department of Fish and Game tries to divert the salmon downstream from the San Joaquin into the Merced River. Yet, in not being able to return to the spot where they were born, the salmon essentially have no place to go to lay the eggs, so fewer fish manage to survive, the whole environment for them has been degraded, so the numbers of salmon keep shrinking.

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This year , however, I believe as many as one 115 salmon managed to get past the barrier and went upstream, so they went farther than they ever have in the past 60 years. This development was a surprise to a lot of people.

Q: For readers who may not be familiar with the background of this story, can you share a note of perspective on the salmon’s historical migration cycle in relationship to the river, and how this has been affected by the river’s diversion?

A: As I understand it, the salmon have been making this journey to the river for close to half a million years, for as long as the river has been in existence. At one point, there were so many salmon in the San Joaquin River it was said is you could walk across the river on the backs of the salmon. You probably could not literally do that, but visually that is what it looked like. Yet, for the past sixty years, their way has been altered due to the development of the dam, water diversion efforts and destruction of habitat. Whether it is ancestral memory, whatever it is that still drives them upstream, they still try to go as far as they can go, so as soon as the settlement water to flow from Friant Dam all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the salmon will return.
Tales-San-Joaquin-RestoredIn effect, their migration cycle has been greatly disturbed. When salmon are born, they grow to a certain size, then they return to the ocean, for two, three, four or five years, and then they return back to the spot that they were born. It is their focus, to return to the exact spot they were born, and spawn the next generation, and then they die. The fish dying is also the process of the fish giving birth to the next generation, which is one of the beauties of course of this whole cycle; this also reflects a broader ecological environmental cycle. As the river flows downstream, you have, for example, plants fall that into the stream, and they get washed into the river downstream and then they go into the ocean. Plants and animals have nutrients, which mean when those plants or animals die along the river, they are carried out the ocean, and become food for ocean life. As the salmon that live in the ocean literally swim upstream against the current with their bodies THEY carry these nutrients and minerals and all kinds of important things to feed the entire environment around them. This would include everything from food for people and animals to minerals for the surrounding plants and trees.
So it is very important that the salmon return to the river to give birth and die, that’s their natural cycle, and why a lot of people want the river restored. It is comforting to watch the salmon coming back upstream as it is as if they are living out their fate.

Q: Is the salmon population able to spawn in any part of the river?

A: Until recently, they could not spawn in the part of the river where they historically went. At the time they leave the ocean to return to freshwater to spawn, they no longer eat, they are preparing only to give birth and die. So in a sense they sacrifice themselves, although that is our concept, but that is ultimately what they do to contribute their bodies to sustaining the next generation. So the decision was made by the Federal Government and the State of California to trap as many as the fish as they could, and to take them farther up river, past the dry extension of the river, and put them in the part of the river that has been restored, to observe if they would find spawning grounds. There is still a stretch of the river that has not yet been fully restored, which is supposed to take place some time later this year or next year.

Q: What was the initial purpose of the dam, and how has the discussion evolved to restore the river?

A: The initial purpose of the dam, Friant Dam, was flood control and to encourage water diversion for agricultural farming. The dam is an environmental, political, economic discussion. One argument is to control flood waters, and the other was to divert water for giant canals to take the water away from the San Joaquin River and carry it southward and northward primarily for farming. It is essentially a trade-off between environmental preservation of the river and the ever growing need of freshwater by these farms. Some hold the perspective freshwater has been wasted if has not been used on a farm, that the salmon as a species is not in danger of extinction as they exist elsewhere such as in Russia and Japan. This may be a narrower view of the situation, but it is a perspective I found a lot of people have through my research. California state law states if one is to build a dam a sufficient level of water must be allowed through the dam to maintain fish populations who already existed in the river. This law was broken by the Federal government when they constructed the dam in the San Joaquin river and dried up the river; it became an extensive court case and finally an agreement was reached that allowed the US Bureau of Reclamation was allowed to keep parts of the river dry. There was a lawsuit to restore the river, and a recent decision determined salmon should be restored to the San Joaquin River, and the Friant Dam will stay in place. But the question is how much water must be allowed to flow down the river to bring back and maintain the salmon. Environmental restoration efforts still ongoing, it is still in process in courts. There is still the question of whether salmon will ever return to spawn, but the possibility of restoration is closer than it has ever been.

Q: As an environmental filmmaker and journalist, what is your philosophy on presenting these multi-faceted issues?

A: I try my best to make a film that tells some truth, which does not present points of view from an ‘us versus them’ perspective, people in the right and people in the wrong. Yet, it is certainly a challenge; in a sense, it is so much easier if one has a simple message. The question is, can you make an environmental film that does not have enemies in it? That is really it… I try to approach filmmaking from the perspective that everyone is acting in good faith and has a meaningful viewpoint; yet, there is a minority who do not approach these issues in such a way, and it is a very difficult matter to explore. It is my hope people will really just listen to each other, so in a way there is no message, except here is what some people say, here is what other people say. I always try to approach the film to try to figure out if there is a way to present the context of these issues in a way that is usually not seen in environmental discussions. To hopefully inspire a measure of compassion and understanding from all perspectives about what can I learn from this person and his / her experience? So it is just really trying to find a new perspective on these very complex issues.

Q: Can you share what environmental film projects you are currently working on?

A: In addition to an updated version of Tales of the River San Joaquin, I am also completing a film about Tulare Lake in the California central valley, as well as directing a film Racing to Zero produced by Diana Fuller.

Tulare Lake image from Invisible-5: a self-guided audio tour along California’s I-5 corridor between SF and LA.

I have been working on the Tulare Lake film for more than five years, and sometimes I sit and I think I am insane, yet that is what the goal is, to try to make a film as broad and insightful as possible. This film is looking ahead to global warming; the biggest reservoir in California is the snow build-up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The melting snow replenishes our rivers and provides the water for California farms, cities and wildlife. What ever what may be the cause, probably the last ice age still ending and the role of human activities such as burning fossil fuels, the planet is getting warmer, it is happening and we must adapt to it. But this is also an opportunity for the restoration of natural systems like Tulare Lake, which was actually part of a chain of lakes in California’s Central Valley.

The snow now in the Sierra Nevada Mountains does not hold the water as much as it has in the past, it runs off the mountains more rapidly, and now what do you do with it? A lot of people in the state are not asking that question, and a lot of other people are asking to build more and bigger dams or enlarge existing dams. Yet the question I would like to raise is this, what is the best thing to do? Tulare Lake is largest lake west of the Mississippi – the lake has been dried out because of agriculture and the bottom of lake is still used for farming, yet some of it is not very good farm land. One possibility is to restore Tulare Lake and use it as a natural reservoir. Perhaps one positive aspect of global warming in some sense will be to allow restoration of lakes elsewhere and natural systems to return. It is not the usual thought when you think about global warming, it is always perceived as a great disaster, and from many perspectives it is, yet from my perspective the global warming train has left the station even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions today. It is going to mean certain things to certain parts of the world, and perhaps it could advance a measure of balance, and bring more people together about environment. So the film has been difficult to balance from several perspectives. I have to understand the water systems, which takes a long time to understand, how water moves around the Central Valley.

Evaporation basin at Tulare Lake Drainage District, California

There is not a lot written about the valley, it is all very new, and thus perhaps another challenge. I remember reading a biography of George Lucas, who is from Modesto, in the Central Valley. The author wrote with amazement that someone like George Lucas could come from such a boring, flat place. So that is one comment that tells me how little people understand the valley. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that I cannot move more than a few feet in the valley without finding something to film. The European part of California’s history alone is worth many films. I sure wish the Tulare Lake film was easier to make; I have not been able to raise any money from a first initial grant, and has certainly become, unfortunately, a financial burden, but I remain passionately committed to completing it. It takes 3-5 years to make a film like this, and just in January I went to film the final footage. It is quite extraordinary to film some aspects I have not ever seen before in terms of how water moves on land, particularly for all the time I have spent in the valley, and even considering that I spent Kindergarten and first grade in the central valley city of Fresno. Perhaps everything that has occurred over the past six years has brought me back to this point, to where the film began, and to feel like I am finally understanding the political and environmental complexities, not a complete understanding but my own understanding.

Racing to Zero will focus on San Francisco as well as global efforts to reduce landfill waste to zero, hence the ‘race to zero’. The concept focuses on our literal race to zero with our resources, and the hope of trying to prolong ourselves by recycling to have zero waste by year 2020. The film includes discussions of composting, that anything we use, we recycle. It is an incredibly hopeful film with a positive message. Research has noted 44 percent of greenhouse gases come from garbage, thus when we recycle, we are taking the strongest individual steps we can take to prevent global warming.

Throughout filming, I was inspired to learn about the work by James Kao, who founded an electronic recycling organization called Green Citizen. He has been working on the concept for over a year based in downtown San Francisco, and it is still on a scale very few people know about it. At various kiosks he has set up throughout the city, you can take electronic waste there anytime, and anything that can be repaired is then sold on EBay. If he cannot repair it, he takes it apart and either resells the components or recycles the basic plastic and metal. His idea is every two blocks, in every city, there should be a place to bring electronic waste for recycling. After asking him what inspired this idea, he shared the turning point came after watching a documentary film with Bill Moyers on a flight about the dumping of e-waste in Asia. Originally a native of Taiwan, he was working for Hewlett-Packard in Silicon Valley at the time. He said he had no idea, he never thought about where it went, and that watching the documentary changed his entire life. With savings from his previous work, he took two years off to conduct research, and then founded Green Citizen. I think this story is worth repeating to all documentary filmmakers or any person who is trying to advance social good, as if you have any doubt about the impact of your work, any work of art, but certainly a documentary film, this literally this changed this person’s life, and he is now in the process of changing how we in the U.S. deal with electronic waste. An inspiring story within a story.

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One Response to “A Conversation with Filmmaker Christopher Beaver”

  1. Great read. I’ve always had a fascination with Christopher Beaver films.

    August 26, 2013 at 1:46 am

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