"Stubborn? You Bet. Driven? No Doubt. Uncompromising? Certainly." Thus is one friend's characterization of David Brower, the eco-activist behind the Wilderness Act of 1964, who changed our relationship to open land forever. The Wilderness Act ensured that 6,832,800 acres were established as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System by special Acts of Congress in 1968.
"But I rarely found him difficult," adds Tom Turner, long time collaborator and family friend. "He made life difficult for some people who richly deserved it, but the 'difficult personality' charge is generally levied by people who disagreed with him and his style."
The Berkeley natives' relationship began on a promising note when Brower mentioned to Turner he had a good voice, and invited him to narrate a Sierra Club slide film about Glen Canyon, a peaceful canyon land in southern Utah with a mystical pull for hikers and climbers around the country. One of its most famous landmarks, The Cathedral in the Desert now rises out of the reservoir Lake Powell with chalky walls that form a 150-foot natural amphitheater.
But in 1956, when the Sierra Club backed off its opposition to Glen Canyon Dam as part of a congressional deal that eliminated two dams slated for Dinosaur National Monument, Brower the club's executive director, signed off on the 710-foot concrete plug in Glen Canyon, creating an upstream powerboat oasis. "Glen Canyon died," Brower wrote in 1963, "and I was partly responsible for its needless death."
Through these years, Brower and others visited and documented Glen Canyon's archaeological sites and side canyons, much of which is archived at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. The stunning footage, notably from his 1956 raft trip down Glen Canyon, is the key to the success of the new documentary about Brower, Monumental: David Brower's Fight for Wild America. In turn, the twin arcs of Brower's career, the Wilderness Act and Glen Canyon provide the narrative catalyst for the story.
Director Kelly Duane, another Berkeley native, said her love of surfing and open land gave her a natural affinity for Brower's passions, and for the footage. Once she grasped the compelling force of Brower's spirit, she knew making Monumental would be a vital experience. In September, Duane, editor and co producer Tony Saxe, along with Brazilian cinematographer Antonio Nogueira, took a road trip from Salt Lake City to the North Cascades, stopping in every place along the way where Brower had once been. Their first stop was Dinosaur National Monument.
Duane thinks of Brower as the "Martin Luther King" of the environmental movement, and the film largely meditates on the successes of his career. Some might even find Monumental to serve as a nomination for sainthood. But as he was neither patient nor diplomatic, there are some who'd argue Brower may have accomplished more if he had been friendlier. "He may have avoided some of the worst battles, if he'd been willing and able to get along better with more people," says Turner. Then again, it's a slippery slope from "getting along" to "glad-handing," as we can see from the crippling compromises that hamstring conservation legislation today.
In any event, Brower would be more likely to spin in his grave over the outgunning of the environmental movement today than the glowing depiction of his career in the film. Would a maverick like Brower thrive in this desolate political landscape, with the movement in retreat, trying desperately to remake itself?
I briefly spoke with Duane about the film and Brower's legacy, on the heels of the Monumental's release to DVD.
Jennie Rose: Brower's career seemed to hinge on that one Faustian bargain: The compromise with the Department of Interior that ultimately resulted in the damming of Glen Canyon.
Kelly Duane: It was the turning point for his life, because up to that point, Brower was of a philosophy that compromise was a huge part of things. Later in life, compromise still was there, but he decided it wasn't his role. He had never been to Glen Canyon, very few people had. The argument for Dinosaur National Park was that it belonged to the National Park System. His whole point was to protect the National Parks, and in turn he agreed not to fight these other dam sites, but he felt Glen Canyon was 10 times as beautiful as Dinosaur, and it was something he never got over. From then, he felt his role was always to be totally uncompromising. He was a smart man he knew other people would, but he would never participate in compromise.
JR: What did he leave as a legacy for environmentalists? This notion of 'no compromise'?
KD: The most intriguing thing about his story is the power of the individual. It's really an optimistic story about our own personal power. For myself, that was something I wanted to know, in some ways, as much as the environmental movement. It's for anybody to remind you that whatever your path is, you can change the world.
Brower's the person who made us care about places we had never been to. He used film and photography books, media and advertisements to get people invested and be active on behalf of the environment. My film ends in 1969 because to me that was the most dramatic story arc, but he went on to be nominated three times for a Nobel Peace Prize. He was very well respected and fought hard through his entire career. His legacy was bringing the movement to the people, and I think of Brower I think of someone who fought hard and fought successfully.
JR: Let's turn some questions to you as a director now. Did you have a mentor you looked up to, or someone who taught you story structure and editing?
KD: I can't say that I had a mentor, though I wish I did. I had a wonderful time collaborating with Tony Saxe. (Saxe also edited and co-produced See How They Run.) Working with him on both Monumental and See How They Run was very exciting for me because we speak the same language when it comes to film, art and music. We are inspired by many of the same things so when we get together there is an electric creative energy that really pushes me to find the film's vision.
In a different way, working with editor Nate Dorsky was very influential. He thinks a lot about the elegance of the structure, the movement of a film and the emotional power of the image. Our conversations while working on editing had a tremendous effect on me. It was the closest I've gotten to film school, and will most certainly inform my filmmaking moving forward. After finishing Monumental, I went to see his work and was blown away. His films will take you on some of the most powerful visual journeys. The images will stay with you and alter your relationship to film.
JR: What do you make of what some of your peers in documentary are doing?
KD: I think San Francisco is rich with interesting documentary filmmakers. Sam Green (The Weather Underground) made a bold and important film. Jon Shenk's Lost Boys of Sudan was one of the better-crafted documentaries in recent years. But the filmmakers that I've actually talked to about film are the filmmakers I met while screening Monumental at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which is unique in that they help foster deep relationships with fellow filmmakers. There is an international group of us - doc and narrative filmmakers - that is very close. I met my husband, Mario de la Vega there, and his taste for Japanese and French film has started to affect my visual sensibility pretty profoundly.