Another First Run Features infotainment doc with a regional environment focus, Patagonia Rising examines a series of prospective South American dams that, if built, would provide many Chileans with a source of renewable power while displacing others from their homes and flooding some of the country’s most picturesque landscapes. At first, the subject might seem an anachronistic one to U.S. audiences, as we have more dams than anyone except China, some of which were at various moments in the 20th century the world’s most massive. And the residual pride left in our culture by these strange, hulking monuments to pragmatism has arguably led to a widespread acceptance of hydropower and the intermittent eco-sacrifices involved. The global controversy, however, remains, and in places like Chile—whose power is mostly supplied by Italian investors, weirdly enough—the “to dam or not to dam” debate has reached something of a concrete standstill. The country needs more power, despite having a wealth of successful alternative energy sources (wind in particular), but the Baker and Pascua riverbanks are teeming with gauchos whose livelihood relies on the current flow of water and the dry plains nearby that the dams would render unusable.
Director Brian Lilla alternates between talking heads and animated graphics to elucidate first how dams work and, obligatorily, to put a human face on those who would be affected. This accumuluates into a fair primer on the topic, though the voluminous expository voices quickly become disorienting, with every pro followed by a tidy con. We also continually return to a single family of ranchers, whose interspersed testimony should provide the film with an emotional arc, but their stories don’t make a cogent enough case for their political claim on the farmland they’ve cultivated; their musing on the countryside’s unrelenting harshness seems almost in conversation with a different topic. (Toward the end of the movie, the issue of global warming further confuses things; we learn that some ranchers are being killed by flashfloods that melting glaciers are causing, and the Patagonian environment spontaneously morphs into an antagonist.) And while it might be silly to fault the doc for stopping short of a call to action for North American audiences (why would anyone here raise their voice to stop an Italian conglomerate from relocating a Chilean farmer, anyhow?), the lack of one turns the viewer into a powerless bystander. The Patagonian beauty shots become almost taunting: There’s nothing you can do about it, but wouldn’t it be awful if all of this were underwater?