The Beaver Believers: a Film About Giving a Dam

Though he’s moved on to become an artisan baker/entrepreneur, Brennan Johnson did important work on an eco-documentary showing this month in Brevard.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, current Marshall resident Brennan Johnson — now 24 and head of The Walnut Schoolhouse baking collaborative — was part of the film crew for The Beaver Believers during the summer of 2013. While studying Environmental Humanities and Film and Digital Media Studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, Johnson applied for an internship with Whitman alumnus Sarah Koenigsberg, the director and lead cinematographer on Beaver Believers. 

As second backup camera operator, Johnson, with Koenigsberg and the rest of the film crew, spent the summer traveling through eight western states, Mexico, and Canada to make the documentary. Sometimes he had to shoot footage while also transporting heavy crates of beaver, slipping in knee-deep mud. Twelve minutes of The Beaver Believers is being featured in the traveling Banff Mountain Film Festival, a juried collection of works about extreme outdoor adventure.

Why is a film about beavers in the Banff Mountain Film Festival?

It’s a movie about climate change and adapting to climate change. The film shows how the North American beaver has an incredible ability to a be a natural force against climate change. Through their work of restoring watersheds and water tables, they show us how we can better adapt and work with nature. The film also shows how we can provide the resources for them to work. In the Western states where there are more arid environments, they can be very instrumental to the restoration of water.

The film follows a biologist, a hydrologist, a botanist, an ecologist, a psychologist, and a hairdresser who share a common vision. How does the hairdresser play a role?

The Beaver Believers is largely about individuals and their specific character roles. It focuses on a few different individuals, but the hairdresser was a fascinating case. Sherri Tippie, from Denver, Colorado, was not outdoorsy at all and was the least environmentally focused, but she had a love for beaver. She is a relatable character. In Denver, she witnessed the issues with beaver in urban settings. She thought she could do it herself more humanely than how it was being handled at the time, so she became a certified beaver trapper. Beaver trapping provides countless jobs for people and helps brings the beaver back into the wild.

How did you locate the beaver?

We spent most of our time on public wild lands. Beaver are most active during early morning and at dusk, so it was difficult to find them … we actually didn’t see beaver for the first two weeks while on the road. Sherri Tippie was actually very helpful in finding them. The beaver are not dangerous creatures, but they can be vicious when they are being moved to new locations. They were all pretty calm around Sherri, though.

The film came out in April 2018, but you filmed in 2013. Why such a long wait?

So, we filmed the bulk of The Beaver Believers during my time there, but soon after, Methow Valley [in Washington State] caught on fire, took people’s lives, and was extremely detrimental to the environment. Since the film itself was going to be about climate change and the fire was started as a result of climate change, Sarah felt that there needed to be another chapter of the film about the fire. She ended up going back and filming that part after to add to the final documentary.

What do you think about the North American Beaver?

I think it’s been given a bad rep, but it really is an important keystone species for the environment. A lot of our cultural conception of it comes from fur trapping, or our first colonial instinct — gaining profit off of the land. In actuality, beaver are doing a lot to keep things balanced in our natural systems. The film tries to show the importance of letting them continue to do their thing.

Did the film change your life in any way?

Filming this made me much happier to be living and camping outside when I need to. We were outside all the time and were not necessarily a polished or clean film crew, but it was a great experience overall.

This baby beaver holds a clue to climate restoration. (Still from The Beaver Believers, used courtesy of Sarah Koenigsberg.)

The Beaver Believers will be shown as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, coming to Brevard College Friday, March 15 through Sunday, March 17. For more information on the film, visit thebeaverbelievers.com. For a film schedule and to purchase tickets, visit brevard.edu/banff-mountain-film-festival.

 

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