78 minutes, 2010, HDCAM

“Considering Bison: New Documentary Facing the Storm a Smart, Elegant Production”

Newwest.net, October 4, 2010

By Brad Tyer

Sure bison are photogenic, iconic and mostly gone, but the latest from High Plains Films gets beyond the familiar story we think we know. See it this week in Missoula and in November at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival.

The problem of illustrating historical scenes with still photographyso annoyingly solved by Ken Burns’ frame-creeping photosgets a very cool innovation here with Andy Smetanka’s stop-motion silhouette animation. You’ve never seen anything tumble over a buffalo jump like this. And you’re never going to get this effect by clicking a mouse in iMovie.

It was nothing but pure happenstance that when I settled in last week to watch the screener of High Plains Films’ new Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison, the only viable snack food in reach was a bag of Melstone, Montana-based Montrail Bison’s Teriyaki-flavored Buffalo Jerky that I’d picked up the day before on a drive to Bozeman.

If you’re going to check out the film’s Montana premiere at the Wilma Theater on Wednesdayand this is a recommendationallow me to suggest the popcorn. There’s just no way to face that animal, never mind its story, and feel blithe about chewing the pulverized fleshly remains of one.

That’s an emotional response, sure, and Doug Hawes-Davis’ documentary earns it, largely by not dwelling overmuch on bison’s acknowledged spiritual significance, which would be pointless to deny, but can get a little woo-woo in a hurry. But above and beyond the admittedly moving woo-woo about brother bison, the film builds a logically air-tight case that America’s bison have been treated far beyond shabbily, that we’re still treating them that way now, and that for our sake and theirs, they deserve better.

In London, the Albert Memorial has statuary at four corners representing Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. The central figure of America’s corner is an American bison. Wyoming has a bison on its flag. Montana has a bison skull on its quarter.

The skull, at least, is apt. We’re happy enough to exploit bison as a symbol of wildness, but there’s no getting around the fact that they’re the only big, wild animal in America that isn’t allowed to live wildly.

More than a few Montana viewers will be familiar with the plot. Thirty million American bison, survivors of the Ice Age, roaming free across the Great Plains, ranging from Alaska to Mexico. Indigenous tribes developing in eco-synchronicity with the herds. Mass white settlement, with cattle. Mass slaughter of bison by whites and tribes bothby Indians for trade, and by whites to subjugate the Indians. Driven near extinction by 1900. Recultivation from a remnant herd in Yellowstone National Park, where they’re now routinely hazed by state agents with snowmobiles and helicopters to keep them from leaving the park for forage. This under orders from a state under the thumb of neighboring ranchers who fear exposing their cows to a bison diseasebrucellosisthat bison have never yet transmitted to cattle.

Oh, or they’re slaughtered by the Department of Livestock.

Or gunned down in Montana’s on-again-off-again canned lottery hunt.

None of this makes any logical sense, and it feels deeply, emotionally wrong.

Elk, as it would seem everyone knows by now, carry brucellosis too, but they’re allowed to roam wherever they want. (Then again, elk have a powerful lobby of elk hunters. The bison lobby is primarily American Indians and Buffalo Field Campaign activists.) As Gov. Brian Schweitzer says, in a relatively low-key performance here, some people just don’t want buffalo competing with cows for grass. Right now, those people are running the show.

Hawes-Davis gives them their face-time, and the ranchers come off as reasonable and sympatheticit’s hardly their fault they’ve become accustomed to the doubtless well-earned government preference that subsidizes their industry at the expense of bison. (It’s harder to swallow when a stockgrowers spokesman, all duded up in his office-cowboy best, tries to claim that bison would ruin the ecosystem they’ve adapted in harmony with for more than 10,000 years, or that the western landscape we know and love is an integral and irreplaceable byproduct ofyou guessed itcattle grazing.)

The jerky really catches in the throat when the film explores the innards of a buffalo slaughterhouse, or tracks a daredevil-low helicopter chasing a buffalo into a corral, or captures a hunter too-glibly cracking wise over his fresh kill.

It’s a good thing the buffalo are so photogenic. There’s some footage here from cinematographers Dru Carr, Hawes-Davis and Ken Furrow that makes you wish you’d been the one laying in that just-right light on that very field of grass watching that same bison wander. There’s a thrill to watching a bison up close, and the urge is understandable, but it’s not a terribly bright thing to do. One of the relatively minor indignities we impose on the animal is the insatiable and unappealing human tendency to shove a camera in the face of anything that moves. There’s some cool archival footage here of Yellowstone yahoos chasing buffalo around trees (which looks like fun until you’ve just been tossed 20 feet in the air on a sharp horn, during which flight you have time to realize who was chasing whom). It’s hard to stifle a cheer when the annoyed bison deliver their comeuppance, and since I was watching alone at home, I didn’t bother to try.

Aside from having a powerful story at its back, Facing the Storm puts some elegant filmmaking in its service. The problem of how to illustrate static historical scenes with nondynamic still photographya problem so annoyingly solved by Ken Burns and his frame-creeping photosgets a very cool innovation here with Andy Smetanka’s stop-motion silhouette animation. You’ve never seen anything tumble over a buffalo jump like this. And you’re never going to get this effect by clicking a mouse in iMovie.

Along the way, Montana historian Dan Flores and writers Richard Manning and Hal Herring pop in to deliver smart, context-setting perspective, with retired Horse Butte cowboy Jesse Stovall, to whom the film is dedicated (he died in 2004), playing the role of the observer who’s happy to call a sonofabitch a sonofabitch (and about whom you’ll want to see a dedicated documentary all his own).

Sooner than later the story of bison always expands to become the story of the Great Plains, and the film spends time with Frank and Deborah Popper, the Rutgers, N.Y., professors who stepped on a hornet’s nest with a 1987 paper suggesting that huge chunks of the depopulating Great Plains be basically given back to the bisonthe so-called Buffalo Commons proposal. Not a rancher in the Great Plains has much truck with that idea, but the former governor of Kansas, who originally took umbrage and aim at the Poppers, has since come around to their side, and there’s bipartisan support in Kansas, the film reports, for establishing a Buffalo Commons National Park in that state.

Likewise, there’s a nationwide tribal cooperative doing good work to reestablish bison herds on Indian lands (though free-range boundary issues there aren’t likely to be any less complicated than those around Yellowstone), and the Buffalo Field Campaign continues to do the yeoman’s work of bearing witness to how we actually manage bison in the Park. It’s not all bad news.

But the good news, such as it is, depends on another bit of emotionally uncomfortable logic.

Facing the Storm makes the point twice: If bison are going to be restored at any sort of meaningful scale, it will be because they start to pay their way, which means we have to start eating them. Paradoxically enough, bison can be ranched in a more-or-less wild state (as long as you discount that whole slaughter-sell-and-eat thing). If they can be ranched profitably, semi-wild states can be provided for them, on the private dime, so we can stop spending public money to harass, confine, and kill them.

Among the things likely to stick with you from the film, I found two most compelling. One is the sound the beasts make, a low, almost conversational grumble. The other is the way a group of bison appear to memorialize and mull the death of one of their cohort. Neither behavior makes you feel particularly righteous about chewing dried bison haunch, but maybe that’s just an emotional reaction. Once you’ve finished your popcorn, maybe a bag of buffalo jerky for the ride home isn’t such a bad idea.