A River's Last Chance is beautiful from the onset. Shane Anderson's documentary opens with a montage of Northern California's Eel River, speckled with salmon and wildlife. Wide shots of the river framed by forests and mountains are rendered through stunning cinematography.
The beauty of the river only makes the environmental damage at the center of the film more heartbreaking. A River's Last Chance—Anderson's latest collaboration with Portland-based environmental organization Pacific Rivers—tracks damage to the Eel. Three years ago, the river ran dry due to over-logging, over-fishing and a hydropower dam that disrupts salmon migration. One shot shows a salmon that's reached the end of the river where it's so shallow, the fish has to struggle to stay underwater.
It's outrage-inducing, which is exactly Anderson's goal. "We're trying to build a storytelling campaign," he tells WW. "We're always trying to push for changes."
Anderson is far from formally trained. The Washington native is a former fisherman and professional downhill skier. He took an interest in movie-making after appearing in skiing films in the late '90s. Anderson's skiing career was short lived-—he broke his back in 2000 at the X-Games after half a decade on the slopes, and he became disillusioned by how much the scene was driven by corporate sponsorships. "My friends and I got fed up with the politics of it all," he says.
Anderson moved to LA and worked in Hollywood for five years. It was in one of the smoggiest cities in the world that his concern for the environment took shape. "I ended up living with this actress who was making documentaries on environmentalism and the Green Movement and such," he says. "I kinda got inspired from her."
That inspiration led to a move back to Washington, where Anderson filmed Wild Reverence, a documentary about threats to the West Coast's steelhead trout population. He followed that up with Behind the Emerald Curtain, which profiles the political gamesmanship surrounding Oregon's logging industry. Pacific Rivers used publicity from the film to introduce legislation reforming the Oregon Forest Practices Act.
The legislation didn't make it through the House, but with A River's Last Chance, Anderson isn't deterred in his effort to get audiences involved.
The Eel is one of the longest rivers in California and one of the best preserved salmon routes along the Pacific. But increased human interference has put that in danger. For interviewee Eric Stockwell, a member of the Eel River Recovery Project, that's hardly a surprise. "What's difficult around here is that you come to realize people are disconnected from the landscape," he says. "The fish and the places that they choose to use are all indicators of our own environment. Modern people don't seem to connect the dots on all that."
A River's Last Chance explores that disconnect with long sections dedicated to the river's history. Anderson breaks down the destructive practices that harm the forest and the river, including illegal marijuana-growing operations, which regularly disrupt the river to divert water to crops.
In one scene, a fly-over shot of the forest reveals swaths of trees cut away for greenhouses. "There's a rush to make money in the cannabis industry right now," Anderson says. "You've got all these people coming in from all over the world now that don't live there full time, that don't know about the river or the ecosystem, who aren't environmentally conscious at all. Those people have got to go."
But Anderson recognizes that forcing people out of the area isn't a feasible course of action. He hopes to help revive the damaged fish population by restructuring the river's dam, which prevents salmon from completing their trips downstream.
"Everyone at the local level wants to see the river returned to its former glory," says Anderson in his narration of A River's Last Chance. "It's critical that we the people take a stand for a future we want to see."
SEE IT: A River's Last Chance is at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd. 6:30 Sept. 30. $9. See portlandecofilmfest.org for full schedule.