The Fight to Save Europe’s Remaining Wild Rivers

Photos by Nick St.Oegger

There’s been a lot of focus on the ocean and plastic of late.

A noble and most urgent cause, no doubt, but you’ve got to question the integrity of companies that jump on bandwagons; scrolling LinkedIn recently I came across four different marketing campaigns simultaneously from different brands claiming that solving this problem was top of their agenda. Patagonia tend to be the ones towing the bandwagon, and legendary environmentalist/activist Yvon Chouinard’s company’s funding of projects that draw attention to the myriad of threats to the natural world is unparalleled in a company of its size. The latest of which, Blue Heart, is a wonderful piece of journalism that documents the struggle to save Europe’s remaining wild rivers from being turned into hydropower plants—a so-called renewable energy source that’s nowhere near as green as it’s been billed. I caught up with the film’s director Britt Caillouette to get an insight into the process of putting together this incredible film, and to find out what’s really going on in the Balkan Peninsula.

Britt came across the project through Farm League, the production company that reps him, and their longstanding association with Patagonia. “We like to make impactful documentaries,” Britt tells me. “I had been looking for the right project for a couple of years when I got a call from the folks at Patagonia about what was going on in the Balkans. I studied history in college and knew a little bit about the region, mostly about the conflicts, but to be honest this whole story was completely foreign to me. I just couldn’t believe the film hadn’t already been made. This is arguably the greatest environmental catastrophe on the European continent and it was almost completely unknown beyond a few in the region. I thought it was an incredible opportunity.”

The crux of the matter is that the wild rivers of the Balkans are being threatened as a result of shortsighted greed. “When we see beauty, they see money,” says one of the locals interviewed in the film. “It looks complex but really it’s very simple. This is a politically unstable region. Companies and money from abroad can make things that they cannot do in the European Union.” Hydropower has been portrayed as a “green energy” alternative in a huge propaganda campaign by the, you guessed it, hydropower industry; “It’s just water, right?” Britt says sarcastically. But in reality this sentiment is folly, as damming rivers has huge consequences for the habitat that it intrudes on. Moreover, in the Balkans corrupt governments, aided by investment from the global financial sector, are using these huge projects to funnel millions into offshore bank accounts. “The people who are talking us into the hydro issue is the old triangle,” says another local interviewed in the film. “The hydro lobby, then there’s the construction lobby, and then there is the bank.”

One of the striking things about Blue Heart is the local people featured. Steering clear of experts, Britt chose to interview the people on the front line of this fight against corruption, and in doing so, gave the film heart and narrative, something he was conscious of as “rivers and dams are mostly static… kind of boring.” “The people I feature in the movie are what we might consider unlikely environmentalists,” Britt says. “They are farmers and hunters and villagers but they are also living in modern society… people who are not your typical NGO activist types. These people are prepared to die or go to prison to protect their rivers, not because of some abstract ideal, but because they are at the core of their livelihood and cultural identity.”

Britt and his team spent three and a half weeks on the ground in the Balkans, and overcame plenty of obstacles to end up with such a polished and insightful finished project. He lists “the ability to be quiet and listen”, “research skills”, “a rugged production team willing to do what it takes” and a “fixer you can trust” as the key components for such a project, although he admits that hurdles are inevitable. “Language was a huge barrier,” he tells me. “It was very difficult for me to research as there wasn’t much written about it online, and anything I found had to be translated first. Physically too, it was a challenge. We spent weeks sleeping on people’s floors in remote villages, driving thousands of miles around the region. Most of the film was shot on super 16mm and Panavision lenses, which means lugging lots of heavy cases and brick batteries to super remote areas. I couldn’t have done it without my amazing crew.”

Photo by Andrew Burr.

Britt says the thing that makes him proudest looking back on the project is not the film itself, but the people featured in it. “In the film we tell the story of a group of women who have been protesting for over a year, blocking tractors from tearing up their river by blocking a bridge with their bodies,” he says. “They have been arrested and beaten, but they are still there. When we premiered the film in Bosnia, brave volunteers from Patagonia Europe swapped and filled the women’s places on the bridge so they could come to the screening. We found out recently that they won their court case and the permit for the hydropower plant was revoked. I am most proud of them for persisting through such difficult times.”

Head here to watch the film and learn more about this pressing issue.

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