Film Review: Patagonia Rising

Although director Brian Lilla is neither a compelling storyteller nor a journalist, he presents a passionate and cogent scientific argument against Chile&#8217;s latest dam project in <i>Patagonia Rising.</i>

In Manel Mayol’s 2005 documentary Switch Off, the filmmaker chronicles the resistance movement of the Mapuche people of Chile against the building of the Pangue Dam on the Biobio River. The dam was built by Endesa, a Spanish multinational and a subsidiary of Enel, an Italian energy company now partially owned by the Italian government. (Enel bore some responsibility for the 1963 collapse of the Vajont Dam near Venice, which killed nearly 2,000 people.) Because the Biobio had once been the dividing line between the Spanish empire and the uncolonized, indigenous lands of the Mapuche, Mayol viewed the Pangue Dam as an instance of recolonization. Today, the Mapuche pay the highest electric rates in the country. In some ways, Brian Lilla’s Patagonia Rising picks up where Mayol left off.

This documentary is also about Endesa, now disguised as HidroAysén. In 2011, the Chilean government approved the multinational’s plan to build five dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers, home to other indigenous people with a proud ranching tradition. The project has the endorsement of Chile’s president, Harvard-educated billionaire Sebastian Piñera. According to Forbes, Piñera’s fortune grew by $200 million between 2010 and 2011, his first year in office. While Chile’s center-right coalition government, Endesa’s corporate structure and the Biobio River dam are all mentioned only fleetingly in this documentary, Lilla presents an intelligent scientific argument against damming the rivers.

The filmmaker advocates for sustainable energy sources, and plies the familiar environmental benefits of preserving the sparsely populated Patagonia region of Chile, home to both rivers. He also explains the unique riparian ecology, describing a warming trend that is melting Chile’s temperate-zone glaciers and causing the rivers to rise, a fact ignored in HidroAysén’s environmental impact studies. Lilla interviews the president of HidroAysén, and the “gauchos,” horse, cow and sheep ranchers, who are mostly against the dam, as well as businessmen who are in favor of it. Far more interesting are segments in which experts and resistance leaders from SinRepresas/Patagonia Without Dams discuss the deleterious effects of dams in general.

Other excellent sequences are ones in which researchers prove that Chile could replace the megawatts generated by the proposed dams through the placement of solar panels in the Atacama Desert. Unfortunately, Lilla often loses control of the narrative, and many interviews are long, repetitive monologues with no cohesive cross-cutting to related events, or to other interviews on the same topic. The filmmaker’s lack of cinematic technique, and his manipulative use of music—an unfortunate trend in documentary—is somewhat mitigated by his passion for the subject, and his ease with complex scientific evidence, for instance, from glaciologists who are studying the effects of global warming.

In the end, Lilla achieves his purpose, which is to convince the audience that the government of Chile is acting against the best interests of its people. In fact, according to the Chilean press, Piñera’s support of the HidroAysén project puts him and his party in opposition to the sentiments of over 70 percent of Chileans. In broader terms, Lilla echoes the call of Occupy Wall Street in his subtextual references to oligarchy, and the threat it represents to the planet. More than half the world’s rivers are clogged with dams, despite the consensus among scientists that dams should be the last resort in meeting a country’s energy needs. Patagonia Rising leads us to one startling conclusion—that dams are nothing more than international investment opportunities for the rich.