Watching ‘Saving Atlantis’ in the belly of the beast

Douglas County, Oregon has been scraped and burned and riddled with bullets. It green and lovely and economically struggling and scrappy and rich with rivers and forests and angry and hopeful. It’s timber country and salmon country and covered with old growth and clearcuts, a patchwork of contrasts.

We were invited to screen our documentary on coral reef decline, Saving Atlantis, in Roseburg, the county seat and metropolitan capitol (pop. 20,000) in this sprawling and wild county that stretches from the rugged Oregon coast in the west to the needle-like spire of Mt. Thielsen on the crest of the Cascade Range to the east. Part of the deal when you make a film is traveling to support it. It’s easy to get burned out and write off screenings in smaller towns. But every audience you can pull together is a step forward. It’s why you made the thing in the first place. And having a filmmaker present at each screening increases the impact and adds media opportunities, extends the reach. This is all especially vital with films about critical issues like Saving Atlantis.

I’ve done screenings and readings for my various film and book projects over the years and you never know what you’re going to get. It’s always awkward. I don’t like being the center of attention, which is strange because isn’t it the ego that drives us to create these things in the first place? I once did a reading in Napa for my novel Vintage and only one person showed up. The manager of the book store felt bad and invited me across the street for a bottle of wine. It was expensive and we split the cost. For our hometown screening of Saving Atlantis, a thousand people showed up. I figured Roseburg had to fall somewhere in between.

I decided to be the one to attend the Douglas County screening to represent the film. Co-director Justin Smith sometimes goes, or our co-producers Darryl Lai and Daniel Cespedes. Sometimes it’s our film’s subjects, Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber or her PhD student Ryan McMinds. But I like small towns and rugged country so I volunteered to go to this time. Plus there are a number of trout streams down there that I hadn’t fished yet, so it would give me an excuse to set up camp next to the Little River and see what its waters had to offer.

We had been invited down by a fellow named Stuart, who called our office one afternoon on behalf of the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition. I had never heard of Stuart’s organization: indeed, I wouldn’t have suspected that it existed. Douglas County isn’t known as a hotbed of progressive grassroots organization. So this struck me as an opportunity. When Justin and I first started planning Saving Atlantis, our goal was to get a hypothetical farmer in landlocked Kansas to care about the plight of coral reefs, a threatened marine ecosystem thousands of miles away. We hoped that our imaginary farmer might even be willing to change his behavior to help them. Our strategy was to turn the focus to the ecosystem services that reefs provide to humans and show the plight of people and communities that depend on them. Douglas County, Oregon isn’t Kansas, but from a political standpoint it may as well be. So this would be a good test case.

Audience at Roseburg screening

I drove down and met Stuart, who turned out to be something of a character. With thick glasses, an unruly beard and a tee shirt that said something about UFOs, he seemed the idea eccentric figure to take on the cause of climate change in a notoriously conservative county. This is timber country. It’s the place where you expect to find jacked-up monster pickup trucks tweaked to burn more gas than necessary, the local youth spending their precious money specifically as a giant “fuck you” to environmentalists. A generation ago you would have seen lots of “Save a Logger, Eat a Spotted Owl” bumper stickers. Douglas County’s latest conservative effort was voting down funding for their local libraries in an act of self-destructive, anti-tax zealotry. It’s amazing how politicians can whip up a frenzy to get people to vote against their own self-interests and take on self-destructive acts, like depleting their local forest resources for the primary benefit largely of multinational companies, paying  way too much for gas and directly harming the fish that are a point of local pride or shuttering cultural institutions like their very town libraries. But this right-wing movement politics is gospel here. So I thought it might be a tough place to draw a crowd for a science documentary about the impacts of climate change on ecosystems on the far side of the globe.

The board of the coalition, lovely people who offered counterpoint to the assumptions I had about Douglas County, showing the citizenry is much more diverse in thought and belief than you expect. They offered to take me out to dinner with the group, which was made up mostly of retirees who’d worked as teachers at the high school or the local community college, plus former scientists from the local forest service offices. I was offered a ride (in a Prius, of course) to the local Thai restaurant. The food was excellent. It blows my mind how you can find good food almost anywhere these days, largely thanks to immigrants. Even in Douglas County.

One of the board members told me over dinner, “you’re in the belly of the beast, now,” a reference to the fact that Douglas County might just be ground zero for climate change denial. This despite the fact that the region’s totem species, the salmonids, have been on the decline for years. The waters in the local streams are getting to warm to support anadromous fish. Anadromous is a fancy way of saying these fish spend part of their lives in the ocean and then swim back up their home rivers rivers to spawn at different points of their lives. It’s one of the more epic journeys in nature. And it’s happening right in Roseburg’s back yard. In so many ways, what was happening to salmonids in Douglas County is analogous to corals.

With dinner out of the way, the Board threw open the doors to the auditorium which was at the local Extension office in an old church. They served cookies and lemonade. About thirty people showed for the screening. I’m not sure if the experience convinced any lumberjacks or timber cruisers to take action on behalf of climate change. But it felt good to show the film there. We had audiences of 300 and 1,000 in Corvallis and Portland, decidedly liberal towns. Preaching to the choir. I figured 30 people in Roseburg had to have a proportional reach in the community.

But I was also heartened by the basic fact that Douglas County even has a global warming coalition. They’re a ragtag collection, to be sure. But it makes me think of the motley group of rebels from Star Wars, the allegorical fable that defined my childhood. An old man, a stubborn kid, a smuggler, a Sasquatch two robots and a princess, and they took on the Evil Empire. And they even won, depending on the episode. The coalition members in Douglas County also have a grand vision. They want to help reverse climate change, a global problem. Locally, they’re working on protecting thousands of acres of local watersheds for the dwindling salmonids and all the other species that depend on them. The forests in this region contain the headwaters for the Deschutes, Klamath, Umpqua and Rogue, some of the most legendary trout and salmon rivers in the world. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, this motley collection of rebels is our only hope. So hats off to ragtag groups of activists, misfits and rabble rousers like the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition. They’re on the front lines, fighting to win hearts and minds deep inside troubled territory. They exude a certain stubborn energy that we all need in times like these.

The next day I screened the film at Umpqua Community College in a 100-level science class, an event that had also been arranged by the coalition members. That was the first time I’d been on that campus, and when I arrived, I couldn’t help but think about the gun violence that took the lives of students and faculty in an English class there three years ago. Then while I was waiting for the students to show up for the start film, I made the mistake of checking news on my phone. Another shooting had just taken place at a Texas high school that very morning. I was suddenly demoralized. It struck me as an absurdity, given everything going on in the world today, to screen Saving Atlantis in front of one small group at a time and trying to build momentum around a movement to protect coral reefs seemed pointless. This community was struggling economically and also trying to recover from a horrible act of violence. They had other problems greater and more pressing than trying to understand and protect tropical reefs. What was I even doing there?

On top of all that, the projector and sound in the classroom was less than ideal. We’d mixed the film for large theaters, and here we were using available electronics. The film would project much less epic than it actually was. I was sure it would flop.

But the screening still seemed effective. The students watched film attentively and followed up with good questions. It was a science class for mostly non-science majors. One of the students wanted to be a journalist. Another, a marine biologist. Their thoughtful questions and their careful attention gave me hope as well. The future will be in their hands. Maybe one of those students would take up the cause, carry it forward.

After the community college screening I returned to my campsite heartened. I pulled out my tenkara rod and caught a half dozen little cutthroat trout that afternoon. There may be fewer salmonids than before. But for the time being they’re still running the Little River. When you hold a trout in your hand and release the hook, it’s a sort of magic feeling. The fish hold still at just the right moment, as if they know you’re about to set them free…a brief instant of trust. Their fate is in your hands, and they seem to understand this. A trout feels slippery and cold, but also vibrant and alive and thrumming with energy. Trout, like corals, will die if the water gets too warm. And the core issues that threatens both species, as well as our own, is exactly the same: our relentless consumption of fossil fuels, the pollution and nutrients we put in the water, development of land around their habitats and overfishing.

Scrappy little cutthroat trout

It’s probably not fair to call Douglas County, “the belly of the beast.” There’s a lot of talk about red and blue states and counties. But there are always people on both sides of every issue. And there are good people on all sides who value the right things. I still believe that reaching people with a story can bring folks together and make people care about the future of this world we’re leaving to our kids. You can only do what you can do, and for me that’s making films and showing them to people and then talking about them afterward. And maybe it’s selfish, but I win some hope for myself from people like the members of the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition and the students who are still doing their best at UCC even on the heels of tragedy. And it brings me a moment of serenity to discover that scrappy little cutthroat trout still hide in the cool pools and riffles on the warming rivers of Douglas County.

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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