When the Grand Coulee dam was completed on the Columbia river in Washington in 1942, it was the largest dam in the world and held up as a marvel of America's engineering power and prowess. Woody Guthrie even sang a song about the "greatest wonder of the world" at the opening ceremony. As with subsequent big dam projects in the West, the economic benefits that were trumpeted to the electrified rooftops, eclipsed the plight of the displaced peoples, often indigenous, or the prime farmland, forests, and ecosystems that would be ruined in the process.
The true cost of big dams may be now sinking in, but still the old-style, mega-is-best mentality is mesmerizing governments in rising economic powerhouses like China and India.
Drowned Out is a jam-packed DVD documentary about one such project, the huge Sardar Sarovar dam project in India and the plight of the adivasis, indigenous tribal farmers, whose ancestral lands have become submerged.
McLibel filmmaker Franny Armstrong picked up a DV camera and a solar power pack and journeyed to the lush, valley village of Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh. There she stayed with the healer Luhariya Sonkaria and his young family in their village hut, the lowest on the riverside, and documented their struggle against political indifference and the rising waters of the river Narmada.
The DVD, which includes the 75-minute feature and a 15 minute update, shot for PBS television in the U.S. earlier this year, charts the history of the Sardar Sarovar project from when Prime Minister Nehru laid the foundation stone in 1961 up until April of this year when rising waters forced the family to abandon their home and move higher up the slopes. Nehru's view that dams are "temples of modern India," quoted in school textbooks, is particularly ironic when you see temples and the ancestral lands, which the adivasis believe are inhabited by gods, disappearing under the flood.
Armstrong gives ample space to the official explanation of why the Sardar Sarovar, the keystone in a staircase of 3000 dams, must be built. We hear an ebullient dam engineer, for whom the project has become a matter of national pride, and self-satisfied irrigation minister Jay Narayan Vyas, wax about how poor, drought-ridden regions will soon have water and power. Vyas even refers to the dam and its 75,000-kilometre canal system as a "wonder of the world."
But if the politicians haven't learned from experience, the people have. "There's a lot of money in poverty," says author and longtime protester Arundhati Roy and, as the film reveals, the real beneficiaries are the industrialists.
Faced with a stark choice between meagre cash compensation or poor uncultivatable land the advasis choose to stay with their waterlogged homes. They need to farm to survive and, as the sweet-natured Luhariya says, they would rather drown with their homes than take cash. A visit to a squalid city slum shows why: a family of nine, displaced by another dam, are shown living in misery off a dollar a day earned in manual labour. Worse still is the sense of loss in the father's words. "I still belong to my village," he says, even though it is at the bottom of a lake.
The hope that arises from this situation is in the way that the farmers led by activist leader Medha Patkar rally together to form the powerful grassroots Save the Narmada movement, challenging the government to respect the needs of the adivasis all along the way.
We see Patkar leading hunger strikers in 1991, which caused the World Bank to withdraw its support from the dam project. Hugh Brody of the World Bank review team put in place to investigate the benefits of the dam said it found the construction and the resettlement plan "alarming" and "severely flawed" from its initiation.
When the government continued building with private money in spite of the WB's report, Patkar and the farmers took the case to the Supreme Court. Construction was halted for six years, while the court deliberated. To widespread dismay the supreme court judges voted 2 against one in favour of raising the dam higher in 2000.
Armstrong explains in a chatty DVD commentary track that she did not take the easy route to a film commission, which would have been to focus on celebrity author Arundhati Roy, who was arrested and jailed for protesting the dam. (The BBC made a documentary Dam/Age centring on Roy's opposition to the dam, which came out on DVD last year.)
Armstrong's decision to focus on the unknown, Hindi-speaking farmers, in particular Luhariya and his family, pays off. She achieves a rare intimacy with her subjects. Even "mistakes" that she 'fesses up to in the commentary, like filming children with balloons that she introduced herself after a trip to the market, help convey the stark simplicity of the adivasis lifestyle and her easy interaction with them.
Roy still features significantly in Drowned Out and she is among the interviews in the DVD extras, along with other eloquent critics such as San Francisco based Irishman Patrick McCully, Medha Patkar, and Dr Hugh Brody.
Armstrong's openness about many of the decisions in the commentary - what worked, what didn't and why - might be instructive for other activist filmmakers. It's interesting to hear how being a "single, female, scruffy filmmaker" meant that she attained a level of trust with the farmers and disarmed the mostly middle-aged men who were promoting the dam.
"They were just so patronising to me," says Armstrong. "Their condescension would come through the lens and into the film. If there had been three burly men in bomber jackets from the BBC they probably wouldn't have revealed their true characters."
The final report on the DVD, in April 2004, says that thousands more homes will be submerged as the dam is raised to 110 metres, a height that has now been reached.
The dam-builders are now seeking to raise it to a new height of 121.92 metres.
Battles continue to be waged. But the spirit of peaceful resistance exemplified by the Save the Narmada movement, and captured so well in this potent DVD, is an inspiration to others confronting mega projects like the mind-numbingly huge Three Gorges and Tiger Leaping Gorge dams in China.
View clips, photographs and order Drowned Out at Spanner Films.