It’s common for filmmakers to fall in love with their subjects over the course of the filming of their documentary. It’s less common for a director to make a documentary because they already love the subject. This is the case for director Ben Knight and his subject, actress, folk singer, and activist Katie Lee. Lee and Knight had a close relationship during and after the creation of his film DamNation (2014). She was his mentor, friend, and ally. Knight cared so much for Lee, that upon her death on November 1st, he decided that she would be the star of this latest documentary.
Katie (2018) is an eight-minute documentary about the life and activism of Lee. Lee was known as the Desert Goddess. She thrived in the rivers of Glen Canyon in Colorado. She would often raft down the Colorado River with filmmakers and photographers, most of the time nude. The photos of Lee during this time are breath-taking, comparing the beauty of Lee’s naked form with the majesty and awe of the Canyon’s nature. When it was announced that a dam would be built on the river, Lee turned to activism. She didn’t want to see her home destroyed.
The film is composed of an interview of Lee, where the audience learns about her funny and spunky personality, and archival footage and photos. Between the F-bombs and her passion for Glen Canyon, the audience quickly learned what kind of person Lee was in her life. I could see how much she thrived on the canyon, how alive she was in the waters, through the archival footage and photos.
To me, even more beautiful than the film was Knight’s reaction to seeing his mentor again on the screen. During the Q and A after the screening, Knight could barely hold himself together, choking on his words as he cried. I could see how much Lee affected the people who knew her. It was amazing to see how one person could create such an impact on the people in their lives. Knight told the story of how he not only lost Lee but also her life partner Joey van Leeuwen, who killed himself the day after her death. The story was both tragic and beautiful. It made the short film hold all the more impact.
Lee’s story may have been tragic, as eventually the dam was built and her days in Glen Canyon came to a close. But her story was also hopeful. Lee describes how the dam was breaking like she had told the government it would, and she would be laughing when the river finally flowed once again, just as it had in 1953 when she first visited.
Katie has a lot going for it. Its theme of environmentalism is inspiring, but it becomes even more so when paired with Lee’s story and personality. It acts as Knight’s final goodbye to his good friend, spreading her story and creating an awareness of her goal and her life. All I can say is I wish that I could have met someone so inspiring, but I guess I’ll settle for learning about her and supporting her cause.