The Aesthetics of Water Reclamation: Cinema and the Irrigated West
The Bureau of Reclamation utilized water infrastructures to create a cultural infrastructure of the irrigated American West most centrally through the creation of its own federally-produced films. In particular, the Bureau produced two short films entitled Hydro (1939) and The Columbia (1949), which draw on a history of silent and sound cinemas navigating the narrative possibilities of reclamation infrastructures. As the bureau’s films denote, in the twentieth century, the act of filmmaking becomes an aesthetic extension of water reclamation practices. In this essay, I argue that the process of reclaiming the American West through the Bureau of Reclamation’s irrigation and dam-building projects simultaneously becomes an aesthetic and narratological reclamation of desert landscapes through the practice of filmmaking. The infrastructures put in place to redirect water for capitalistic ends thus become infrastructures of fiction and simulated natures, which perpetuate narratives of settler colonialism, white exceptionalism, and environmental subjugation on film. Furthermore, the Bureau of Reclamation’s redesigned and redeemed desert becomes a fiction itself as the naturally dry landscape becomes artificially flooded with water: a mythical, fertile, and cinema-worthy desert. In the burgeoning arid communities of the American West, the promise of an aqueous desert became the promise of a good and prosperous suburban life, a dream made tangible through its dramatic portrayal on-screen.