“Bison documentary to premiere in Missoula”
Missoulian, October 1, 2010
By Joe Nickell
Images of bison grace old nickels, multiple state flags and the logos of countless state agencies and private businesses. Here in the American West, the only place where it seems you can’t find bison is out in the wild.
That fact always struck Doug Hawes-Davis as a little strange. Moreover, as a documentary filmmaker, Hawes-Davis found it more than passingly odd that, in a world where everything from ants to whales have merited feature-film treatment, nobody had yet explored the curious plight and cultural history of the most iconic creature of the West. So Hawes-Davis - whose own production company, High Plains Films, features a bison in its logo - set out to change all that. The result is “Facing the Storm,” a 72-minute documentary that celebrates its world premiere at the Kansas International Film Festival this weekend, before coming home for its Montana premiere at the Wilma Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 6, at 7 p.m.
Featuring archival film and photographs, breathtaking original footage, a handful of evocative animated sequences, and a slate of interviews with a diverse array of characters - from scientists to ranchers, animal rights activists to state governors - “Facing the Storm” paints a portrait of the issue that’s as broad and subtly shaded as the Great Plains themselves.
“I always wanted to do something with a broader scope, charting the complete history of human relations with bison,” said Hawes-Davis. “It’s a big and complex issue, and I did my best to address it in the movie.”
“Facing the Storm” wasn’t the first time that Hawes-Davis focused his lens on bison. Back in 2001, High Plains Films was hired to contribute a segment about Yellowstone National Park’s bison to a multi-part television series about various current wildlife issues.
For Hawes-Davis, that small project planted a deeper resolve to explore the issue through a full-length film. But it takes more than resolve to make a film. It also takes money.
In 2005, money came calling - literally. “I was sitting at my desk one day, and the phone rang,” recalls Hawes-Davis. “This woman on the other end of the line said, ‘You guys need to make a film about bison.’ I said it was a great idea, and do you have $50,000?”
Turns out, the caller had half that - which she sent in the mail the following week.
“It wasn’t enough to finish the film, but it was enough to start, so we did,” said Hawes-Davis.
Quickly, Hawes-Davis and his partner in High Plains Films, Drury Gunn Carr, began piling up raw material for the film. That’s when they began to realize the challenge inherent in the project. “We went to every conceivable historical society, public library, the Library of Congress, and cobbled together every image we could find that related to the history of bison in America,” said Hawes-Davis. “It’s amazing, in an hour-and-20-minute film, how many of those you go through trying to illustrate these stories, and you still find you have holes in stories to illustrate.” Some of the biggest - yet most important - holes to fill related to the historical role of Native American people and early white settlers in the near-complete demise of free-roaming bison during the 19th century. To illustrate some of the most dramatic tales - such as the herding of buffalo off cliffs by Native hunters, and the indiscriminate shooting of bison by train-riding white tourists - Hawes-Davis turned to Andy Smetanka, a local writer and artist whose stop-animation silhouette animations fill out several segments of the film. The animated segments hardly look like faithful re-creations; but for Hawes-Davis, that was the point. “If the image doesn’t exist, we figured, let’s not try to do a re-creation; let’s do something creative,” he said. “I think in a way that gives it more impact.”
Much of the film’s meatiest material comes in the interviews with recognized bison experts and historians such as Dan Flores, a University of Montana professor of Western history, and Drew Isenberg, author of “The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920.” But it’s in the more philosophical discussions that “Facing the Storm” earns its heart. One of the most forthright assessments of the issue comes from Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who pulls no punches in his characterization of the underlying motives in keeping bison out of the Western wilds. “There are people who just don’t want the buffalo to compete with cattle for the grass,” says Schweitzer in the film, adding that in his view, the Montana Department of Livestock’s efforts to haze Yellowstone bison back into the park during winters “is a tool for chasing buffalo around and slaughtering them if there get to be too many of them.”
Jesse Stovall, a colorful and curmudgeonly character whom Hawes-Davis ran across in Horse Butte, provides the film’s bookends as well as a few punchy punctuations in between.
“Department of Livestock (expletive),” he growls at one point. “They keep trying to drive (bison) back into the park. Those poor, simple-minded sons of bitches.“Yet name-calling and simple-mindedness seem notably absent in this film about one of the most hot-button wildlife management issues in this part of the world. Even when the narrative turns to the darker chapters of the story - including grisly footage from hunts and bison slaughters - Hawes-Davis avoids jumping to easy conclusions about the motives and methods of those who have contributed to the bison’s troubled place in the world today.“There are so many factors that have gone into the current situation with regard to bison, and some of those factors have changed over time; so you can’t really point to one thing or another and cast blame - even if blame mattered at this point,” said Hawes-Davis. “My main interest was to simply address the fact that they’re the only wild animals in North America that don’t have (wildlife) status. “Even the most hated - wolves, grizzlies, prairie dogs - all have status; and where they live, there’s laws that manage them. That was our central question: Why is that, and how is that, and is this something that as a society we might think about changing?”
Finding those answers didn’t prove simple. “You could do a five- or six-part series on this, because the history’s so interesting and complex,” said Hawes-Davis. “Hopefully we got enough in there to stimulate discussion.” With funding from the Montana Committee for the Humanities and the Independent Television Service, a national funding source that helps bring independent films to public television, Hawes-Davis and company finished up the festival cut of the film in recent weeks. Next up: Prep the film for release on DVD, and produce an hour-long cut to air nationwide on PBS. “We feel pretty lucky that we were able to get an hour of PBS real estate to support it,” said Hawes-Davis, “so we’ll see where it goes from there.”