'Two Rivers'

The documentary “Two Rivers” is an impressionistic visual journey through the removal of the Milltown Dam.

High Plains Films

To show what a big change means to people takes time.

High Plains Films' new documentary, "Two Rivers," takes an impressionistic, long view on the removal of the Milltown Dam and how it affected residents.

They began shooting the film when they first heard that the dam was being decommissioned 10 years ago, and it will premiere this Sunday at the Top Hat.

The film tells the story primarily through visuals in lieu of a dry academic examination.

"We never set out with the idea that we were going to provide a history of the process or the project or any of that. That was never the intention," said Doug Hawes-Davis, co-founder of the Missoula-based production company.

Instead, it intends to convey the process' effects on people: "What does this mean for the community?" he said. "What does it mean directly?"

They began the project after the completion of "Libby, Montana," which was nominated for a national Emmy Award. That project required hundreds of hours of shooting, and took seven years from start to broadcast.

Hawes-Davis, founder and director of programming for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, said the form and style for "Two Rivers" drew on movies that he saw come through the festival.

"It was refreshing to have this revelation that we could approach it in a little different way," Hawes-Davis said.

So they visited the confluence when there were key events underway.

"When things happened, we would try to document it in a particular way and get after the story, which we knew was going to take a long time," Hawes-Davis said.

Hawes-Davis and fellow co-founder Dru Carr naturally made a slew of other projects during that time period, like the feature-length documentaries "All the Labor," about the Austin, Texas band the Gourds, and "Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison," in addition to numerous short films.

The film was produced and directed by Hawes-Davis, Carr and Ken Furrow. The three also served as the main cinematographers throughout the project, along with some additional footage by Travis Jack-Morse and drone photography from local filmmaker Damon Ristau.


Toward the second half is perhaps the most fascinating footage: workers tearing the mill, the dam and the powerhouse apart.

A crane tearing apart the powerhouse and leaving behind a thorny nest of rebar that resembles a petrified bush, arranged as it is on the water's edge.

Carr found some fascinating shots during the mill's demolition: A long nail being popped out from behind, a massive wall falling down, or broken shards of blood-red glass in a windowsill at night.

While somewhat tangential, they spend much time on the mill closure and its effects on the area, which Carr described as a "massive economic and social change."

The editing process was lengthy, even the technology changed during the course of filmmaking - moving from standard to high-definition, which required making the scenes match.

"The goal was to try to let the landscapes and the changes on that landscape tell the story as much as possible," Carr said.

The film does provide context: starting upstream with William A. Clark and the Berkeley Pit in Butte; the construction of the dam to power his operations; the building of the mill and the rise of a thriving working-class community in Milltown and Bonner; the discovery that the reservoir was filled with tailings, and the cleanup/dam removal process.

The long shoot means they had ample footage of the inner workings of the pump house; the timber industry while it was still active; the tear-down; floaters enjoying the new confluence.


Another oblique angle the film pursues comes in the interviews, which are relayed in the form of voiceovers without identification of the speakers. They are people you'd expect, including Envirocon project manager Kris Cook; Gary Delp of Heritage Timber, the company that salvaged the mill buildings; Peter Nielsen of the Missoula City-County Health Department; Judy Matson, who co-founded the Milltown History Center; and more. (Their names are listed at the end of the film.)

"The idea was, let's just hear the voices. You have to take the comments on face value," Hawes-Davis said.

Once you start identifying people's professions, ties and life experiences, you feel the need to be exhaustive, he said.

Hawes-Davis said they took a reverse tack from their usual filmmaking process. Typically, they conduct extensive interviews to learn about the subject and then develop the narrative.

For "Two Rivers," they documented the removal and did interviews later.

"The bulk of the characters who speak about change in the area are people who lived there for the bulk of their lives," Hawes-Davis said "They've seen lots of change in that area before the dam came out. They have a great historical perspective on what that means."

While they provide opposing viewpoints on the removal, they don’t dwell on the long controversy.

"So much of this project of the dam removal and also the mill closure was contentious, and we certainly included that in there with some interviews, but decided that we would leave the politics and the controversies present but not in the forefront," Carr said.

Carr said the film was almost entirely funded locally: grants from the nonprofit Prop Foundation and Humanities Montana, plus a Kickstarter campaign that drew donations primarily from locals in addition to Envirocon.

For print readers, the dam and its removal have an exhaustive amount of coverage, not only from local news. Its effects are the subjects of two books: former Missoula Independent editor Brad Tyer's "Opportunity, Montana," which focuses more on the community that bears the waste of the removal. More recently is "Restoring the Shining Waters: Superfund Success at Milltown, Montana," written by local environmental historian David Brooks.

For a visually arresting trip through the dam's creation and destruction, see "Two Rivers."

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.