At the end of 2008, after she had been teaching English in Coyhaique, the capital city of the Aysen region of Chile, Sarah Athanas, set out to write a love letter to the country that she had called home for the year.
Athanas, 30, is from Cape Cod, Massachusetts and went to UC Santa Barbra in California where she studied art before she setting off for Patagonia to teach English.
Tracking Patagonia is a vivid portrait of life in Chile’s wild South as it faces the potential construction of five hydroelectric dams. Filmed by a young North American film crew travelling by bicycle and raft and told exclusively through the voices of the people, the documentary explores the relationship between the people and the landscape, concluding that the very essence of Patagonia depends upon the freedom of its rivers.
Athanas spearheaded the project, leading the group down the country and directing the documentary. She returned to the US and spent two years editing the over 60 hours of footage the crew had captured on their journey. The film was completed in January 2010 – a 53 minute doc with dramatic footage and touching interviews which illustrates the cold realities of the impact of the hydroelectric dams would have in the region.
The film has since shown in three festivals in the US, as well as festivals in Neuquen and Ushuaia in Argentina, and a green film fest in Switzerland. This Saturday at 7pm the film will be screened at Full City Coffee House in Chacarita, Jorge Newbury 3663, its first screening in Buenos Aires.
What brought you to Patagonia, Chile?
I’m not sure what it was about it. Maybe the name or just that it is this mythical place that is so extreme and inhospitable -at the end of the world. I just had this idea in my head that I wanted to go there. At one point I really wanted to do a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School, they have a three month course where you do backpacking and kayaking, but it was ridiculously expensive.
After I graduated I thought about teaching English abroad. I found out about this program that allowed you to teach English and live in Patagonia for a year. And I was like wow, I didn’t even know you could live in Patagonia for a year! This is crazy I have to do this!
Was this your first experience in South America?
It was my first experience in South America, but I had done a short, three-month exchange to Mexico when I was in college. It was a semester where I lived with a family in Mexico and did intensive Spanish. Three months was just long enough to start to feel comfortable and be able to manage myself. I really wanted to go abroad longer and become immersed in the culture. I foolishly thought that if I went to Chile for a year I could get it out of my system and then just move on with my life… but here I am, it doesn’t really work that way.
It was during this year in Chile that you became interested in the issues there, what was the catalyst that drove you to make the documentary?
I went down there with a little camera that I had and some video experience from school so I went thinking I definitely want to do a project. I wasn’t thinking that it would be a full-length documentary. The experience down there was so strong and transformative, more than I ever imagined it would be. Teaching in a really underfunded school and dealing with being cold all the time and meeting people who lived on the country-side, in what we would consider impoverished conditions, but doing really well for themselves and were so generous. It was a magical experience and I totally fell in love with the region. So I started to get really motivated to tell people because all this would change if they built dams.
Can you explain the background of the dams?
The region is full of free-flowing powerful rivers. For many years it has been under studies by people who want to dig their claws in it and develop for hydroelectric energy. [The proposed dams] is one of many projects, but it was the most advanced project at the time. It is a huge project, the proposal is to dam two of the principal rivers in the region – The Baker River and the Pascua River – the project would entail five different massive hydroelectric dams. It would be devastating for the region, environmentally and socially. They would be bringing in at least 5,000 workers.
So the idea is that this is a place that should be left alone?
It is a really complicated issue. There is a lot of people who live there that have had a very difficult life and they don’t have many options for work. Some say, “pavement? That sounds great. Anything that will make my life easier, they want that. That is why it is so controversial because there are some people saying, bring development and others who say no way.
What would you say to people in favor of the project?
My idea has never been to tell people whether or not it is a good idea. I mean if you watch the documentary you will see it is slanted against the dams. But, I didn’t feel comfortable as a foreigner telling people what decision they should make. It is easy for me to romanticize it. I went down there and spent a year ‘roughing’ it but I always knew in the back of my mind that I could come back. Here I am now in a café in Palermo. It is different for me. It can be almost selfish for me to say leave it the way it is. I never wanted to say this is bad or good, but about listening and shine a light on what they have. It is about being a witness to what is going on. I was just an English teacher down there.
Have you seen an impact from the film?
Right now the tables have definitely turned. Polls have come out saying between 70% and 80% of people are against it. So there has definitely been a massive turn. More and more people coming out saying no we don’t want this. As recently as two years ago when we went back to show the documentary, a lot of the people we had initially talked to who were opponents had changed and were supporting it. The dam developers would go in and offer people money, or put into the town, or the soccer team. But what happened wasn’t a sudden surge of environmental consciousness but people are starting to get really frustrated by being pushed around by the country. This is a region that is really isolated they don’t have a paved road that connects them to the rest of Chile. They are completely cut off. They feel like the government is always ignoring them.
I’d like to think the documentary factored in the mentality of some of the people. We left a couple copies down there and it just started circulating and copies were pirated, which we hoped would happen. There all so isolated, the person in one town doesn’t know how a person in the other town feels. So it was cool to watch them watching each other and how it connected them.
So its not politically or environmentally motivated, what drove you in making this documentary?
I sometimes think of it more as a kind of elaborate love letter to the region. It was motivated more out of connecting with the people there and I guess I felt very moved by the people there and I wanted to give something back. I was looking for a way to connect on a different level with the people and show them what it is they have and how much it meant to me. For me its a lot more of a personal motivation than anything else.
How did you feel when you finished the trip?
Before, there was a lot of nervousness, a lot of stress about planning the journey and anticipation. My brain was just thinking, what the hell are we trying to do – we are not experienced bike travellers we are not experienced documentary film-makers – what are we doing!
Honestly the first week or so of the trip was a disaster. We didn’t know how to use the equipment we weren’t getting good interviews we were all fighting, we were tired, just a total disaster.
At the end it just shifted to forgetting about your self, and became about being there and living this experience. When you film a documentary that intensively you kind of just become a lens. Everything you do your just absorbing it to put it back out. You start to have the experience in a different way.
You returned to the US in 2008 to put the footage together when did you finish the project and why did you come back?
We finished everything in January of 2010 and we went back to Chile to show it in January/February. That was the first time it was shown publicly. I was down there for about a month. Basically we just retraced our steps and showed it to everyone we had interviewed.
Then I came back to the US and then it was just a couple of months later that I moved back to Buenos Aires.
Why Buenos Aires?
Honestly it was just a lucky situation where the company I was working for asked me if I wanted to come down here and I said sure, why not! I left that job just recently and now Im self-employed, doing some marketing, free-lance stuff.
I have a lot of ideas but I am definitely thinking now what I want to do is something more flexible – like a series of shorts. When you spend two years editing something it just kind of takes over your life and it is just a very intense process. So I am not really eager to do something like that again. But I am very interested in the whole idea of pan-Americanism. This idea that we are all Americans: Chilean, Argentine, Columbian, or North American. I would like to do a series of interviews of immigrants, people who are living in another country in the Americas that isn’t their country. Just looking at that experience and what it is all about.