Elwha River documentary wins 'Oscars of nature film' at Jackson Hole festival

bilde 1Work begins on removal of the Glines Canyon Dam in “Return of the River,” the winner of two major awards at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

By Diane Urbani de la Paz 
Peninsula Daily News

No way could this pair of filmmakers, from two communities on the North Olympic Peninsula, turn away from the story.

“I wanted to tell the world about what was happening here . . . to document the whole thing come hell or high water,” John Gussman of Sequim remembers thinking circa 2010. 

This month Gussman and colleague Jessica Plumb of Port Townsend have won two “Oscars of nature film,” as he calls them, for their Elwha River restoration documentary “Return of the River.” 

Plumb and Gussman are back home from the Jackson Hole, Wyo., Wildlife Film Festival, where they received the Project Impact Award and the Marian Zunz Emerging Filmmaker prize, honors that come with plaques and prestige but, alas, no cash. 

“Return” tells the story of the largest dam removal effort in history: a $325 million project to remove two dams and restore the salmon runs and ecosystem. The film is about not only the dam demolition but also the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe's long struggle to free the river. 

After premiering last year in Port Angeles, it's traveled to some 25 festivals, Gussman estimated; accolades include the Gold Jury Prize at Seattle's Social Justice Film Festival and the Best International Documentary prize at the Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival of Malaysia.

Gussman is the movie's cinematographer while Plumb wrote, edited and produced the four-year project, which began with a Kickstarter.com campaign that reaped $12,000. 

The whole thing cost about $80,000 in donations, grants and their own money, Gussman estimates — not to mention the passion they poured into it. 

Plumb's interest in a documentary about the Elwha's liberation grew, naturally, from the fact that the Peninsula is her home. But there's another factor. 

In winter 1999, Plumb was working in China, where she witnessed the start of construction for the giant Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River.

“That dam was a tragedy for the environment,” she said, while “on the other hand, it provided a tremendous amount of electricity.” 

bildeFilmmaker John Gussman of Sequim works beside the former Lake Aldwell while making his award-winning documentary “Return of the River.”

The dam-building was also a scene seared into her memory — and forward to September 2011, when Plumb stood on the overlook above the Elwha Dam. Demolition had just begun. 

A parent and driver for her daughter's kindergarten class trip, Plumb found herself overcome by emotion.

“The whole feeling on that overlook was one of elation and excitement,” she recalled. 

Plumb is still excited, as is Gussman. But oddly enough, they have yet to find a distributor for television broadcast of “Return of the River.” 

“We did meet a couple of people at the [Jackson Hole] festival,” who may be interested, Gussman said. 

Those with DVD players and high-definition computers and televisions, however, can watch “Return” at home. The movie is available on DVD for $20, or for streaming, at $4.99, via elwhafilm.com/order.htm.

For those who prefer a bigger screen, “Return” will be shown at two Peninsula venues next month:

■   At 7 p.m. Nov. 19 during the Elwha River Science Symposium at Peninsula College, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd., Port Angeles.

■   At noon Nov. 22 at the Rose Theatre, 235 Taylor St., Port Townsend. 

Meantime, the movie will keep traveling, from New York City's Wildlife Conservation Film Festival on Oct. 21-22 and the Netherlands' International Film Festival Rotterdam from Oct. 29-31. 

At the Jackson Hole awards ceremony, Plumb paid tribute to her kindred spirits. 

“It may years to make a film, but it took decades to free a river,” she said. 

“This award belongs to all who worked to restore the Elwha.”


Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.


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