Power Struggles

It's not every day that a couple of ragtag documentary filmmakers land an opportunity to interview the CEO of a multimillion-dollar public utility. So it was with some trepidation that Dawn Mikkelson and James Fortier drove nearly 500 miles to Winnipeg in August of 2004 to meet Manitoba Hydro honcho Bob Brennan. For the past several months, the pair had been collecting stories from the Cree Nation of northern Manitoba about how hydroelectric power plants have affected Cree land, waterways, and people. The interview with Brennan, the thinking went, would provide a key scene for local director Mikkelson's third documentary, Green Green Water (a work-in-progress version of which screens Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Lagoon Cinema, as part of Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival).

But as fans of Michael Moore's films know, CEOs can be an elusive bunch. The night before the meeting, Mikkelson and Fortier, Green Green Water's director of photography, learn via voicemail that Brennan won't be available. Instead they're offered Manitoba Hydro director of public relations Glenn Schneider, no stranger to fielding tough questions about the province-owned utility. Another Manitoba Hydro employee joins Schneider at the interview, holding a camcorder aimed squarely at Mikkelson and her one-man camera crew. One almost wishes a third duo had been on hand to film the filmers being filmed. "I think they see me as an activist trying to take down a corporation," Mikkelson tells me later. Well, they're not entirely wrong there. Listen to Mikkelson talk about the environmental and social ills related or arguably related to the province's hydropower dams--polluted water, unemployment, increased suicide rates--and it's clear that she's an Activist Who Makes Films first, a Filmmaker Who Documents Activism second, though she happens to be a very gifted documentarian.

During the interview, Schneider speaks softly through a well-groomed white beard. As the cameras roll, his eyes aim directly at Mikkelson as he argues that some environmental groups have presented misleading information about his employer. "Even on your site," he says, referring to the Green Green Water website, "you make a statement about suicide rates in northern Manitoba and link it to our projects. That's grossly unfair." (For more on the correlation between Manitoba Hydro's plants and suicide rates among northern Manitoba Cree, see Mike Mosedale's "Damaged," a 2002 City Pages piece that inspired Green Green Water.) After some debate, in which Schneider is less fluid than earlier, Mikkelson responds: "We've heard time and time again people who say, 'We used to hunt, we used to fish, we used to trap, now we can't. Now we're sitting here...living off the government's money. And we have nothing to pass on to our children, because they can't do these things that have fueled our spiritual and traditional selves.'"

The exchange can be viewed on the Green Green Water website's video log, or vlog, along with other interviews and stories from the movie. Though the filmmakers have collected dozens of accounts from Cree members, Schneider represents the sole voice for Manitoba Hydro in the production. Mikkelson says that the production can't afford to make another push to get that interview with Bob Brennan, though they are still trying to raise money.

Of course a story about a Canadian hydropower dispute isn't typically the sort of thing that turns the eyes of Hollywood investors into dollar signs. So from the start Mikkelson and company followed the fundraising path frequently trod by indie filmmakers, nonprofits, and frat houses alike: They threw parties. By holding house parties, the Green Green Water team raised about $20,000, and along with other donations and grants, they've been able to scrape together enough money to put together a 95-minute rough cut of the film.

The hub of this operation is the downtown St. Paul office of Aquaries Media, the multimedia production company Mikkelson founded in 2001 with Jamie Lee (also Green Green Water's co-director and editor.) Giving me a tour (necessarily short--it's a small office), Mikkelson stands at the storefront window and shows me where she has recorded the voiceover track for Green Green Water. She talks into a thick, dark curtain in an effort to mitigate the room's echo, though the concrete floor seems to be fighting back. Renting a sound studio is a luxury Aquaries can't always afford. "Given that we have no funding, you know, you gotta do what you gotta do," says Mikkelson, as she takes a seat on a funky orange office chair in the office's screening area.

That do-what-you-gotta-do aesthetic goes beyond recording technique. There's a strong sense of mission behind Aquaries' work, and Mikkelson and Lee are turning into old pros at helming underfunded projects that champion the underdog. Their previous doc, THIS Obedience, followed Anita C. Hill's battle with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Hill, an out lesbian, refused to take a vow of celibacy before her 2001 ordination, thus defying the ELCA's ban on non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy. "I have a problem when people are picked on for something that's out of their control," Mikkelson says.

Green Green Water is about a power struggle--the pun is unavoidable and employed in the film's promotional literature--and also about interconnection and complicity. Mikkelson steps in front of the camera as the film's tour guide, contrasting her electricity-rich life in St. Paul with those of the indigenous people living on the hydropower-flooded land that harnesses power bought, as it happens, by Xcel Energy and sold to residents of St. Paul.

In a scene from the film shot in northern Manitoba, a thousand miles from home, the director rides a boat near the South Indian Lake community in waters affected by the Churchill River Diversion with Cree member Carol Kobliski. Kobliski points out drowning trees and an eroding shoreline on her father's island. The water level fluctuates by several feet every few days, so islands are disappearing entirely, explains Kobilski, whose family home was burned to make way for the effects of hydropower dams. "If the cabin was still here, I'd probably be living here," she says, holding back tears.

In another scene, a young girl is seen in her dilapidated home, lingering by two large plastic garbage pails filled with clear water. Frank Dysart, the girl's father and owner of the home, explains that the community has no source for clean, running water. Houses like the one shown were supplied by Manitoba Hydro in exchange for those lost to the dams. "These are the ones that Hydro supplied?" asks Mikkelson, standing in front of the meager manufactured residence. "Yep," Dysart responds.

Not all of the Cree are critical of Manitoba Hydro, and though the film favors Cree who are against the dams, it also makes an effort to show a complicated problem complete with internecine disagreements. In a public building of the Nisichawaysihk Cree community, Chief Primrose discusses a possible partnership with Manitoba Hydro. "If we're going to sit and complain about what happened 30 years ago, certainly, the community is not going to go anywhere," he says.

For her part, Mikkelson brings the story back to the community she's part of, and Green Green Water serves as a reminder that everything--making toast, for instance--is political. "I use electricity willy-nilly," says Mikkelson, now contemplating unplugging her VCR because she doesn't need the clock. "Ultimately, I am the end user, and the reason these dams are being built."

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