Jörg Daniel Hissen first glimpsed the devastated blast zone of Mount St. Helens as a German exchange student at Portland’s Lincoln High School in 1982.
The accomplished documentary filmmaker returned to the Northwest recently with a 52-minute film chronicling the ecological recovery of an area stripped nearly bare by the mind-bending eruption of May 18, 1980.
“It’s a story of hope, basically,” Hissen said.
Hissen, 45, is premiering the film with showings in Seattle, Battle Ground and Portland. Financing for the project comes from Austrian and German television, along with the PBS program NOVA.
Hissen, who spoke by telephone from Seattle on Monday, said he embarked on the project after meeting U.S. Forest Service ecologist Charlie Crisafulli during a visit to Oregon early in 2006.
That summer, Hissen filmed a short trailer while staying at Crisafulli’s research camp near Windy Ridge.
After securing financing, Hissen filmed Crisafulli and U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Jon Major during the summers of 2008 and 2009.
“The purpose was to have an entertaining film with high-end visuals,” Hissen said. “The overall idea was that it’s a story of hope, basically. It shows how resilient nature is.”
Hissen was struck by the contrast between the “moonscape” he remembered as a high-schooler in 1982 and the revitalizing landscape he found nearly three decades later.
The film focuses on four zones: the pumice plain directly north of the volcano; Spirit Lake; the debris avalanche and the outlying tree blow-down zone.
Crisafulli has closely tracked the recovery for almost 30 years.
“By now, Mount St. Helens is considered something like the granddaddy of restoration ecology,” Hissen said. “There is no place in the world where nature is studied so well and so thoroughly like it was at Mount St. Helens.”
Major provided insight about the eruption of 1980, followed by dome-building eruptions in 1980-86 and again in 2004-08.
The general public is drawn to the violence of volcanoes, but Hissen said he decided to focus on the ecological recovery of plants and animals around the mountain as something of an untold story.
“I felt challenged to put that in a film and do something on animal or plant life without having sharks,” he said.
Local residents may have a tendency to take it for granted, but Hissen said he remains in awe of Mount St. Helens after all these years.
“It is just a place like I have never seen anywhere else in the world,” he said. “There are other mountains, and other volcanoes. But this setting, with Spirit Lake, the force of the eruption 30 years ago, it’s just something you don’t find anywhere else in the world.”
Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or firstname.lastname@example.org.