Missoula-based filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis and Dru Carr created their new documentary, Two Rivers, backwards. Over the last decade, the High Plains Films team captured all of the events connected to the removal of the Milltown Dam, from the closing of the Stimson Lumber mill to the construction of the Canyon River golf community to the small but magical moment that a stream of water trickles forward and rejoins two rivers for the first time in 100 years. Only after every single scene was shot did they even begin to think about adding a narrative to the images.
"In most of our documentaries, we start with interviews," Hawes-Davis says. "We get the commentary first because you learn a lot by asking questions to your primary characters. But here I wanted to see how things took shape without commentary, just the images and sounds. I wanted to see where they took me."
Making the movie this way made sense for the subject matter. After all, the film reveals that primary characters in this story aren't people at all, but places: the Berkeley Pit, the Bonner Mill site, the Milltown Dam, the local communities and, of course, the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers. These characters have complex relationships and history that ultimately led to the climatic dam removal. Hawes-Davis and Carr largely let these places speak for themselves, with a narrative that is quiet, simple, thoughtful and often emotional.
The documentary covers more than 100 years of history, each event intimately tied to the next. At the turn of the 20th century, Butte's booming copper mining industry needed lumber to build mine shafts. To help with supply, the Bonner Mill was created and, in 1908, a dam was built nearby to provide it with power. Just months later, a flood caused sediment polluted with arsenic and heavy metals to rush down the river, and the dam prevented the toxins from leaving the area. In the 1980s, the Berkeley Pit closed and the EPA discovered that Milltown's water supply was tainted. Twenty years later, the Stimson Lumber mill shuttered and the dam came down, starting in 2006.
Because Two Rivers was shot before any interviews were recorded, the visuals and accompanying sounds take a front seat in a genre where expert interviews, formal narration and on-screen text traditionally rule. Instead, the audience is allowed to focus on the main themes of the story—place, change, nature and industry—without being distracted. At the same time, the necessary details of the story are told through disembodied and unattributed voices, used sparingly and poignantly throughout the film.
"When you start throwing in talking heads, regardless of their names and titles, it becomes subjective when you put their faces on the screen," Hawes-Davis says. "The comments stand on their own. I don't believe in objectivity, but the viewer is not becoming biased based on who [the commentators] are, who they work for, what they've done with their lives."
However, Hawes-Davis notes the dam removal has become less and less controversial over the 10-year period that the movie was made.
"When the idea was first proposed, it was very controversial," he says. "The dam has been part of the landscape for generations, so moving the structure changes your home. But you would find much less controversy today. This issue was really just about the desire to avoid dramatic change. But change was going to happen. That's what this film is about—how change happens and how we respond to it."
Two Rivers screens at The Top Hat Sun., Oct. 18, at 7 PM as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Series. Free.