The Akosombo Dam is a massive hydroelectric dam on the Volta River in southeastern Ghana built by Ghana government between 1961 and 1965 following Ghana’s independence from European colonizers. The construction of the dam flooded of the Volta River Basin, creating Lake Volta, the world's largest man-made lake.
Today, Lake Volta cradles a vast underwater forest that hosts millions of submerged trees in the 8,500 square kilometer lake. Each of the submerged ebony, teak, mahogany and other tropical hardwood trees could be worth $1,500 to $2,500, their value preserved by the lack of oxygen in the lake water, and the total harvest could be worth up to $3 billion. The profitability has drawn the interest of controversial business venture, curiously lead in-part by former Canadian Prime Minister Joe clark, that aims to harvest the vast underwater forest. According to The Globe and Mail, Joe Clark, who has charted a legacy as a successful statesman and entrepreneur, has helped attract $18-million in private investment to the project with a further $100-million likely to be invested over the course of the project. The Lake Volta logging project is expected to be the biggest underwater logging project in the world, using cutting-edge technology that is yet to be deployed in the scale of Lake Volta.
I recently spoke to Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman, director of an intriguing documentary titled The Work At Lake Volta. The production team describes the project as “a cross section of international development, globalism, environmentalism, and the personal stories of the people involved.” The team plans to dive underwater to film the ancient sunken trees and to feature the people on the banks of Lake Volta in a cinematically rich visual story.
Can you briefly describe your journey so far as young filmmakers. Are there any significant events, or interactions that have guided you to where you are today?
I've wanted to be a director since I was as young as 10 years old. I've always loved watching movies. Blockbuster Video was my Disneyland. When I got into college, I took a class on documentary production that introduced me to the Direct Cinema of the Maysles brothers and the Cinema Verite of Jean Rouch and the ecstatic truth documentaries of Werner Herzog, and all of this made me realize that documentary could be just as powerful and poetic and transcendent as fiction.
After college, I started making documentaries in my hometown of Detroit, chasing every story I could find. I made a film about the world's largest trash incinerator, located in Detroit, and the fierce battle around its health and environmental impacts. That one ended up playing on PBS and I got my first real paycheck from documentary production. I also started shooting what later turned into a feature documentary called 'Detroit Threat Management', this one about an urban paramilitary bodyguard squadron based on the Detroit river.
Pretty soon after, I got a job as a videographer/editor for an nonprofit organization working in northern Ghana. I flew to Accra and travelled up into the northern region where they gave me a videocamera, a motorcycle, and a house in the savanna and basically said 'Good luck', leaving me alone for 8 months. That was an intense and incredible experience and it was there that I learned about the story of Lake Volta and the logging that's about to happen. Since coming back to the US, I've worked on a bunch of stuff including an Emmy-winning short documentary series called 'Delray does not equal Decay' for One Of Us Films in Detroit.
How did you first hear about the Lake Volta logging project? What was so attractive about this subject? At what point did you decide to pursue it as a documentary project?
I was working for Create Change Now in northern Ghana, and the office manager there was a Ghanaian man named Samson who would read the paper every day at lunch. One day I glanced at his newspaper and a tiny little article buried on the bottom corner said 'Canadian Company Set To Log Lake Volta's Underwater Forest'. I tucked that away into the back of my brain. Dan Epstein, the film's producer, came to visit me for a couple weeks toward the end of my stay, and he fell in love with the place as much as I did. Ever since coming back, we've been trying to come up with a project worthy of sending us back there. We're both interested in the idea of development and globalization and cultural juxtaposition and the way that any lifestyle that's different from yours functions as a mirror. We've tried several different things, a new idea each year, and this year I thought 'What about that underwater forest?', and that idea has caught. So that's what we're going to film.
Who are the key stakeholder and decision makers in the Lake Volta project?
The key stakeholders in the logging project are, as far as I can tell, the logging company, called Triton Logging and functioning in Ghana as Clark Sustainable Resources; the Volta River Authority, a government agency in Ghana; and several organizations that represent the local fishermen. There are probably many more, and that's what we're raising money to do. We want to go there and investigate what's happening.
What is the current state of the project? Is it set to commence anytime soon?
We're in the final few hours of a Kickstarter campaign to fund pre-production. Once we have that money in place, we're going to send our Ghanaian co-producer, Yidana Hameed Korbirbilla, to the Volta Region to start shooting as much footage as he can. He's going to interview fishermen, loggers, families of people who have lost their lives from boating accidents caused by underwater trees, and just the life and visuals of the Volta region. Meanwhile, Dan and myself and our DP Yoni are going to go visit Triton Logging at their HQ in Victoria and shoot interviews there. This footage is going to make a kind of short documentary or extended trailer, however you want to look at it, and we're going to use this to become immensely more viable as fundraisers for our feature. With that short video in place, we can show funders what we're trying to do and get them interested in the project. We aim to fund the feature by late 2015, and be on the ground by 2016.
Underwater logging is a relatively new endeavour. The Lake Volta logging project is targeting an underwater forest in the largest manmade body of water on the planet - a 8,500 square kilometre lake. Is there a track record for the type of technologies working at these scales?
Triton Logging has been working pretty extensively since their formation in 2000, and they've used their underwater logging technologies - mainly a small submersible Paul Bunyan type machine called the Sawfish - to harvest underwater forests in Canada and South America. According to them, the technology is proven to be both efficient and safe for underwater life.
The profitable nature of the venture is clear given the highly desired attributes of the harvested timber. But is there a clear sense of what the potential environmental costs or burdens of this project? How are these threats perceived in the context of this completely man made environment?
The environmental angle is actually one of the most interesting aspects of this story. One thing that's very attractive about this company and their operations is that they're logging a forest of dead, submerged trees to get hardwood. People use a lot of hardwood globally, so this is a resource that's going to come from somewhere. Triton's point, and I think it's valid, is that by introducing hardwood from dead trees into the market, you take away pressure from live forests. On the other end, there fishermen around Lake Volta who feel that the underwater logging is going to disturb fish habitats and harm the water, thereby detracting from their ability to make a living. To add a third piece to the puzzle, more than 400 people have died in boating accidents from boats ramming into submerged tree-tops since the early 60's when they flooded the Volta River Basin. So the removal of these trees would actually be a huge safety boon to the region.
Is there a profit sharing mechanism proposed or considered by the companies, government, and locals?
The specifics aren't entirely clear to me, but I think the government of Ghana is going to get somewhere between 1/5 and 1/4 of all profits from the sale of the wood. I don't know how that money is going to get distributed or used.
Do you have a sense of the local sentiments, most notably of the fisherman who rely critically on the lake for food and sustenance?
Locals in the region are pretty divided. There are many who feel glad about the logging project because many people will get training and jobs as loggers and support staff. Also, so many people have been killed because of collisions with underwater trees that I think a lot of people are excited to feel safer on the lake. However, there are also several groups of fishermen who are vehemently opposed to the logging. Their reasons are hard to speculate on because I haven't been there to speak with anyone, but it could range from concerns about the fish habitat, to the use of the trees for stringing nets onto, to worries about the local communities not participating in the profits from this huge harvest operation.
‘The Work at Lake Volta’ is very intriguing because of it's number of grey lines - it is difficult to judge whether the logging project is a good or bad idea. From a narrative standpoint, how do you tell the most honest and balanced story, and allow the audience to reach their own conclusions?
This is a great question, and it's why I find documentary so exciting. The only way to tell an honest story is to be open during production, to try not to go into the situation with prejudice, to be curious and nonjudgmental and to follow the story where it takes us rather than trying to mold it into the shape we want it to be. It also is about constantly questioning yourself during production, asking every day whether what you're doing is the right thing, whether you're depicting events in a way that you feel reflects the truth. And a lot of that is about surrounding yourself with people you trust who will push against you if they disagree, which I think is the case here.
To learn more about the project and to support Jacob's team, visit their kickstarter campaign.