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Sierra Magazine

Sierra's November/December 2003 Let's Talk film selection:
Drowned Out
(a.k.a. "The Dammed," PBS's Wide Angle)
A film by Franny Armstrong

To see more images from the film, click here.

Drowned Out

What it's about
The tribal peoples of India have learned activism the hard way, as the waters rising from the infamous Narmada River dam project threaten to swamp their rural villages. Filmmaker Franny Armstrong, formerly a London rock musician, spent three years documenting the lives of these impoverished, illiterate environmental heroes. Why bother with a complex story in a distant land? "The war for the Narmada valley is not just some exotic tribal war," says Arundhati Roy. "It's a war for the rivers and mountains and forests of the world."

Where to get it
For home use, Drowned Out is available for $29.95 from Bullfrog Films at (800) 543-FROG (3764). (Be sure to mention "home use" when you call. Copies for public showings are considerably more expensive.) A shortened version, retitled "The Dammed," aired on PBS's Wide Angle television program in September. Consult PBS's Web site to see whether the show will be rebroadcast in your area.

About the filmmaker
Franny Armstrong was born in London in 1972. When she was eight, her father, a documentary filmmaker for the BBC, took her to New York where he was promoting a film dealing with world poverty called Global Report. It was there she cultivated her social conscience. "We'd go straight from the screening into the whirl of tourist New York. I think it was this double introduction to both extreme poverty and extreme opulence that set it all off."

Armstrong aspired to be a rock musician but traded in her drumsticks for film equipment at age 23. That was when she heard about a David and Goliath story she couldn't resist, a court case that involved McDonald's suing a postman and a gardener for libel. "It contained all the issues I'd always been interested in—freedom of speech, environmental destruction, animal rights, advertising, multinational corporations—wrapped around this fantastic human story of two little people taking on Big Mac," she says. The result was Armstrong's first documentary, McLibel, released in 1997 to broad acclaim and, while never aired on network television in Britain, viewed widely around the rest of the world.

Bolstered by her documentary's success, Armstrong started Spanner Films, an independent TV production company, the same year. Armstrong produced short films on police racism and climate change before moving on to her next challenge: She spent three years negotiating six language barriers, police arrest, illness, flood, and solar batteries to produce Drowned Out, the story of the families that chose to face the rising waters of the Narmada River rather than yield to the government and its ill-conceived dam. Armstrong expects to continue producing socially conscious films. "I love the way that making films allows you to carve through all the usual social niceties—how else would I get to meet such a wide range of people and ask them any question I feel like?"

Discussion questions Printable version of questions

What do you think about the quality of the film? Did it make a solid case? Was it fair to all parties in the conflict? Was it emotionally engaging? What did you like most about it? What were its weaknesses?

If you happened to see both the long and short versions of this film (the short version was shown on PBS in September and titled "The Dammed"), which did you find most effective? Why?

The filmmaker chose to use "We Can't Wish Them Away" as the subtitle. Why do you think she did so?

Whom do you admire most in this story?

What would you do about the Narmada dams if you were the Indian government?

What rights should the villagers have?

Compare the difficulties faced by India's tribal peoples trying to influence the government to those faced by citizens of the United States.

The film shows us what it calls the biggest nonviolent protests since Mahatma Gandhi's more than half a century ago. How effective were these recent actions? In the PBS version of this film ("The Dammed"), Arundhati Roy talks about the "failure" of the people opposing the dam. In what sense did they fail? Are there some ways in which they also succeeded?

What's the message for Western audiences? Discuss Arundhati Roy's assertion that "the war for the Narmada valley is not just some exotic tribal war. It's a war for the rivers and mountains and forests of the world." Do you agree with her argument that Drowned Out is a tale with important ramifications for people all over the world?

If you were asked to make an environmental film about a conflict near where you live, what story would you choose to tell?

The official site of director Franny Armstrong's production company, Spanner Films, is at There you can read about the film and crew, peruse reviews, and take an amusing quiz.

Filmmaker Franny Armstrong interviews Roy about the Narmada dam issue.

For a history of India's dams, a debate about whether the Narmada project's benefits justify its costs, and a transcript of PBS's interview with Arundhati Roy, go to

To find out what went into the making of Drowned Out, go here.

An interview with Armstrong about the making of the film and the issues it raises.

The World Commission on Dams' report on the environmental and social aspects of large dams in India.

On the WWF's Web site, a tool bar on the left links to articles about social, environmental, and economic problems of dams; solutions; and ways to get involved.

The International Development Studies Network explores the social, environmental, economic, and political impacts of dams.

Take action
Friends of River Narmada's Web site offers updates, action alerts, and the names and addresses you need to express your opinion about the environmental and human impacts of the Narmada dams.

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