“The Naturalist: A Conversation with Documentary Filmmaker, Doug Hawes-Davis”
The Ryder, June 2004
by Megan Hollingsworth
When documentary filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr met in the early 1990s and discovered their similar artistic and intellectual interests, the two co-founded High Plains Films, a nonprofit organization based in Missoula, Montana. With a strong commitment to the art form, they have produced more than sixteen documentary films that look at the relationship between human culture and the natural world. Aside from the help of a few interns, a fellowship student, and a friend who assists with fundraising and administration, Hawes-Davis and Carr practically do it all at High Plains Films: from filming and editing to distribution and outreach. Their films include Varmints (1998) and Killing Coyote (2000), which take a careful look at how humans relate to wild animals and involve issues relating to hunting and competition for habitat, and others such as Libby, Montana (2004), which document the effects of human activity on public and environmental health.
In addition to using purely observational techniques, Hawes-Davis and Carr also incorporate interviews, archival footage, incidental music, and other elements to allow greater exploration of intellectual ideas and concepts. According to Hawes-Davis, their stylistic approach comes from a belief about how people learn: “I’m personally quite stubborn and I know I don’t learn well when I feel I’m being told what to think.” While clearly the filmmakers have strong opinions, Hawes-Davis states that they have “worked hard to create films that are not just for people who share our viewsÅ hopefully anyone who watches them, regardless of their point of view, can learn something from the work.”
With its focus on an individual, The Naturalist, which will be shown by the Ryder Film Series on Wednesday, July 28th at Bear’s Place, is an exception to the otherwise issue-based films produced by High Plains Films. The subject of the film is Kent Bonar, a naturalist and modern-day woodsman, who has accumulated an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and understanding through daily study and meticulous documentation of the natural world around him.
When Hawes-Davis first met Kent Bonar about ten years ago, his attention was drawn in by Kent’s attireâ€¹an eye patch, large knife, leather hat and coat. It was Kent’s artwork, though, that inspired conversation between the two men and would ultimately lead to the production of The Naturalist. Production of the film took about four years and involved several visits to Kent’s home in the Ozarks. The result is a film that offers new insight with every viewing, as it reveals the layers of one man’s understanding of divine nature.
In a recent phone conversation Doug Hawes-Davis discussed his approach to filmmaking, production of The Naturalist, and his impression of Kent Bonar’s work and philosophy.
RYDER (Megan Hollingsworth): In your film The Naturalist, your subject, Kent Bonar, states that “Hunting is a lifetime vocation” and that he considers himself a hunter of many things. You and Kent are both artists and hunters in the sense that you both study nature: you seek out or “hunt” your subjects and capture them on film, and Kent studies and captures his subjects in his drawings. Do you consider your work to be similar to Kent’s work? DOUG HAWES -DAVIS: In a way it’s very similar. Kent and I are both hunters in the traditional sense, in that we have, during our lives, killed animals for food. But we are also both hunters in this more metaphorical sense that he talked about hunting as looking for or seeking out things, but we’re also documentarians. Kent is documenting the natural world around him. He is also an avid historian, which means he is accumulating knowledge and documentation of human culture and human history that relates to this place and the natural world where he lives. So, yeah, very similar, and maybe that’s part of why I was drawn to his work, because it overlapped in these three different ways. But in the film, I hadn’t thought about that. I was curious about his views on the ethics of hunting. He gave some very eloquent responses to that, which you can hear in the film. He also sort of turned that and described the idea of hunting as much more than just killing animals for food. I really liked that. The transition was perfect for the movie, but it wasn’t something we anticipated when I asked him that line of questioning.
R: He went there himself. DHD: Yeah, and again, it relates to his infinite curiosity about the world around him.
R: And to studying God through the world around him. In the film, Kent states that “The way I look at it, Nature is God’s creation, so the way to properly study God is to study his works.One of the things that stands out in terms of the work that you and Dru Carr do with High Plains Films is that you’re really looking at the human relationship to the ecology and how we are behaving and why. The films reach into the human mind and the workings of our activities. DHD: Yeah. You know I have to say, I’m not afraid to do some stuff that doesn’t specifically deal with those things, but it tends to be that both of our major personal interests are the big questions surrounding those issues and the relationship the human culture has with the natural world. So, so far at least, pretty much everything we’ve done has been fairly explicitly about that relationship in one way or another. I think we’ll probably continue that for some time, maybe until we die. It doesn’t mean I don’t have other interests. You might see a High Plains Film down the road that’s a music documentary, or some other piece that’s for my own or Dru’s own indulgent interest. I think that doing that, if you can make the time for it, is really healthy because it helps broaden your perspective on the things you do find most important. And it’s one of the things in the environmental community in the United States that I find sort of frustrating and disturbingâ€¹that, unlike Kent and Kent’s work, many of the folks that are involved in that movement get so focused on the minutia of the issue that they literally cannot see outside that and all the things that relate to that and to their lives.
R: Being so conscious of the larger connections between all these things. DHD: I suppose Dru and I, both coming years ago from that community as well and still being pretty connected to it now, we wanted to do something that hopefully helps people think outside the box a little bit, because Kent is capable of that. Kent is an activist as well, but he’s super-aware of all the connections between all of these different things.
R: In what other ways might you compare your work with Bonar’s in documenting nature ? DHD: He collects images through his drawings and I can’t even begin to be able to do that. I’ve never been able to draw anything with pencil or pen that anybody would want to look at, but he’s able to re-create images that he sees of all these different things in a way that anybody could look at his drawing, and if you saw it outside in the wild, you would recognize it for what it is. That’s really amazing [pauses and something outside catches his attention]Å and there’s a house finch outside my window, and my first thought was, I don’t have any shots of house finches. It’s like both Dru and I are obsessed with collecting images: I’m going to say primarily of the natural world, although since our documentaries deal with human culture so much, those are fun to collect as well, but somehow not as fun as collecting images of landscapes and plants and animals. And we don’t really make wildlife films like you would see on Discovery or National Geographic, but our films draw on that material a lot.
There’s a practical reason for our obsession with recording and collecting those images - maybe they’ll help us in a film someday or maybe we can help somebody else in one of their films, which we also do regularly by supplying footage to other non-profits and other independent filmmakers who are working on similar subjects where they need an image that we might have; but it’s also just kinda fun, you know, and Kent obviously enjoys what he does as well and probably in a very similar way. And so our process is to get out the camera and figure out how to document a certain thing in a certain way, and his process is to go out and find a certain thing that he hasn’t yet documented in his little process that he explains very articulately in the movie: what he actually goes through to put this down on paper, so that then he has this visual record of it - so it’s really quite similar actually.
R: Yes, very much so and the difference is that you are putting it out there, whereas Kent doesn’t have quite the avenue or the resources or even the drive, because both you and Dru are really driven to share what you are seeing. That’s what the films are about, reaching out. DHD: Right, it’s not the most important thing to him. Kent, who was reluctant to do the movie because in his mind it’s also not about him, it’s not about what he can accomplish as an individual; it’s about him coming to terms with the natural world and his personal understanding of it. To me that’s just so fundamentally American. You hear a lot of rhetoric about the sort of rugged individualist doing their things and coming to terms with the world on their own terms, but you don’t really see that many people living their life that way, I don’t think. So that’s also really inspiring; it’s not about what one individual did, it’s about what they can share, what understanding they can provide so that other people can make sense of their own lives.
R: And it’s very clear to me from the film that Kent does not judge himself or feel judged by other humans and success in the human eye, but in his relationship to God. And that he really expresses repeatedly in the film, it’s really about for him doing right by God and by the natural world which he believes is God’s work. D: Right, exactly. Yeah, that’s his individual belief, and he’s been able to figure out a way to carry out that life, and I think that’s amazing. That, in and of itself, is a great American story. An honorable story. Aside from everything else that I think is unique and interesting about Kent, just the fact that he’s been able to set out and do exactly what he’s wanted to do in his life I think is extraordinary.
R: The Naturalist is quite a contrast from your other films, in part that it looks at one man’s relationship to nature and God rather than focusing on an issue. DHD: Yes, in our previous films, and even in two of our subsequent films, This is Nowhere and Libby, Montana, we’re looking at issues or groups of individuals and communities within our human culture. Well obviously it’s looking at one individual’s relationship with the world that presented a lot of different challenges and different issues in making the film. Unlike issue pieces, where you can do a lot of research and largely figure out what’s going to be in the film, in the case of Kent, it wasn’t really possible for us to envision what the story was going to be because it would basically mean making the film first without shooting it and then going and shooting it all over again, because it’s just this one person and because he’s not published. You know if you’re making any biography film about somebody who’s published or there is already a body of work out there about their lives, you can pretty much say, “this is what my film is going to do,” but in Kent’s case we couldn’t; nevertheless, we had ideas about what we thought the film was going to be, or we wouldn’t have decided to do a film about him, but I think the most important thing we learned is not to try and control the story, and that Kent had a story he wanted to tell and it was important we let him tell that.
R: You could say he had to tell it that way because that’s who he is. DHD: So, I hope that we’ve carried that on into our subsequent works because I think that’s for the better.
R: So, going in to this very raw, without expectations? DHD: It pays to do your research, but it’s definitely healthy in doing this line of work or type of art to be open to whatever happens. You’re supposed to be documenting reality at least in some way or another, and so the more you try and put your own spin on it or control the story, the less you’re doing that.
R: So, there was an element of surprise in this for you? DHD: I don’t know about surprise [laughs]. I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but there was a great deal of revelation, I guess, in what he had to say and how it all fit together. And I didn’t even know when we were done shooting. We followed so many, I would say, dead ends on the story line because of what we wanted it to be. And again, it wasn’t a waste of time because we were learning all the time, learning more about Kent and more about what the real story is, so it’s never a waste. Errol Morris [winner of the Academy Award for best feature documentary this year for the Fog of War] has said repeatedly in interviews that he doesn’t ever get into conversations about ratio of how much he shot and how much he uses in his films. He simply says more is more, which means the more you work on your project, the more insight you’re going to have, the better film you’re going to make.
R: What drew your attention to Kent Bonar’s life and work? DHD: I met him about ten years ago at a Newton County Wildlife Association meeting in Newton County Arkansas where he lives. It was a gathering of forest advocates from all over the East. Kent was sitting by himself at the table, and no one was talking to him at the time, he was just kinda sitting there. I took a double take on him because he had this patch over his eye, and his whole outfit was not something you would go to Sears and buy. He had a leather hat and a leather coat and the patch and a big old knife, and it looked like half the clothes he’d made himself and had been wearing for twenty years. And when I took the double take, I saw that he had this book out of drawings he’d done of plants in the region. I asked him about that, and then we just got to chatting and I started learning about this guy and what he was about, and so from there I met him again maybe a year or two years later.
I was teaching a natural history course for the Wildrockies Field Institute in Arkansas, and I had Kent come out with the students, and they were just totally blown away by what he could tell them. They were trying to stump him on questions about the region and plants and stuff that they saw, and of course, for all practical purposes he knows just about everything that anybody knows about the place. So, they were totally amazed and I was as well. The next time I went back to teach a course, Dru and I had just purchased a new camera that we were planning to shoot our new film Varmints with, and we decided we would take the camera and test it out and maybe make a short film about Kent’s work, and that sort of evolved into this four-year project to try to document his philosophies and his artwork and what he’s all about.
R: Kent lives a relatively solitary lifestyle. How easy was it to get to know him and be able to film this? DHD: I liked him right away. I liked his sense of humor. I found it easy to get to know him, but found it more difficult to figure out how to convince him that he should do the film (chuckles). It’s not like we begged or pleaded with him, but he’s a humble person and the idea of having a film made about him wasn’t really in his plan. He ultimately agreed to do the film because he believed that the film would draw attention to the things he feels are important. And that’s ultimately what we wanted to do with the film. It’s not a standard biography documentary like you might see on the History Channel or A&E or something like that. I mean there’s a lot of mystery still about who Kent is and where he came from and those kinds of things, and, so, really what we were doing is documenting what I think are his extraordinary philosophies and lifestyle and artwork.
R: Kent has been described as the “John Muir of the Ozarks” and compared to Thoreau as well. Do you think that Kent would agree with this likeness? DHD: You know, Kent is an original, so in some ways comparing him or any other individual to someone else is apples and oranges. Certainly I think he’s flattered to be compared to some of those people, and Thoreau is certainly one of his biggest heroes. [Aldo] Leopold is as well. Muir might be a little bit of a stretch. But, yeah, I think it’s accurate. But what I think differs from those men is that Kent hasn’t published himself, and the standard means of communication today are really different than the way Kent is trying to communicateâ€¹and I personally am convinced that it is important to his art and his message that he communicate in the way he has chosen. It makes it extremely difficult for him to share his understanding of the natural world with other people. So that’s a challenge for him. But also he doesn’t really see that his work is ever finished; so really for him, it’s not like he is attempting to document every single plant and animal and then he’ll publish a book and then his life’s work will be over. He recognizes that it’s never over, that there are always mysteries, and that, in fact, the more questions you ask, the more questions you’ll uncover.
And so the things of his that have been published tend to be work that’s been contracted by public agencies like the Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources or Dept. of Conservation or the Arkansas Game and Fish or places like that, the Ozark Folk Center. They might want something really specific and he’s been able to get little tidbits of his work out that way. He also writes for the Newton County Wildlife Association newsletter, which obviously has a small distribution. But these are all entities, institutions, and individuals that are willing to deal with his method of communication and get his work out there. A publishing house just isn’t going to go through that, chances are. There are a lot of complications both in the methods that he chooses to communicate and in sort of his own view of the workâ€¹it’s a life’s work, it’s a process and there’s no end to it. So when is the right moment to publish?
R: There’s a sacrifice that Kent is making in terms of not taking advantage of the technologies and the things that now make our lives more comfortable. He’s rare in that there aren’t many people living that way. DHD: Well, I think that the point of the movie is not to say, hey this guy is rare and we should get a bunch of us to emulate that, or try to live his lifestyle so that there are others of us out there to carry this on. That would be nice. But more, I suppose by contrast, by his example, we can see alternatives to different aspects in our own lives, the way we relate to the natural world, food production, whatever. We have something to measure our own lifestyle, interest and behaviors against.
R: Do you feel that Kent and others who live closely to the land live closer to God through their relationship with nature? DHD: Well, Kent’s spirituality turned out to be sort of the main focus of the film and I really like that. It wasn’t something that we anticipated when we started the project, but it quickly became the focus because when we asked Kent big questions, which is ultimately what documentaries try to doâ€¹at least explore, maybe not answer or solve, but look at big questions in human culture. Whenever we would ask him things about philosophy or ethics, or things that are important to him, he would always come back to studying the natural world is like studying God. He didn’t even say it’s like studying God’s creation, he said it is studying God. So that’s really a striking difference from the rest of our sort of Calvinist, Christian religious society.
And, so, it might cause people to ask, but “where does our spirituality come from, what gives you a sense that there’s something greater?” Through my own personal experience and through hearing Kent sort of elaborate on the idea that this is where we can get the idea that there is a reality beyond our ownâ€¹through the curiosity and mysteries of the natural worldâ€¹that’s really powerful to me, and it’s in sharp contrast from what you might hear your sort of every-day American saying about where does their belief in the supernatural come from.
R: I’ve heard so many people say that, well, Earth will continue regardless of whether humans are here or not. We may do ourselves in, but Earth will survive. But my concern and interest is that humans do find a way to survive. I guess the implied question here is why should people be concerned about how much the ecology of the planet can handle? DHD: Well, I’m not sure that my philosophy would mesh with Kent’s here, but my answer is that if there is such a thing as a god, I am fairly mystical in that I believe that the only reason we have so much controversy over what the supernatural might be is because none of us can describe it, because all of us live in this realityâ€¹attempting to put a name on it or describe what it is, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. My view is that, whatever it is, I don’t think that entity or power would care at all if human beings were wiped off the face of the earth. I don’t think that it would matter in the scheme of things. In a more practical way though, yeah, I’m human and I like human society. I would like to believe that when my life is over on the planet, that things will get better here and not worse, and that humans will be a part of making it better, and we’ll figure out how to integrate ourselves into the natural world again, instead of continuing to extract ourselves from it.
That doesn’t mean giving up all of the technologies that we’ve developed and all of our communication information and all of the stuff that we’ve surrounded ourselves with, but, I believe there can be a balance. I’d like to believe that, but it’s a very practical thing, it’s not related to my spirituality. In the eyes of my god, whatever that is, there’s not really any difference between a human being and a spruce tree and a cat and an ant. I think we’re all equal here. I mean we’re not equal, because one of us continues to make things more difficult on the rest of us, but I don’t believe in any hierarchy of beings on this planet.
R: I’ve never met Kent myself, but have watched the film a few times now, and each time it has had a different meaning for me, sort of like getting to know oneself, the world and others, there is always another layer to discover. You’ve just noted that Kent’s own story and intentions determined to a great extent the way the film went, and earlier you mentioned the process he goes through, which is described in detail in the film, to capture the subjects he studies. Would you please describe the process you went through to determine how to put all the pieces together? DHD: Honestly, it was pretty random compared to other projects. In all the hours of materialâ€¹and I can’t remember exactly how much we ultimately shot - I was looking for the things that really defined Kent’s character, his philosophies and established some meaning behind his chosen lifestyle. So, I did go over very carefully everything he had said and all the material we had shot, but once I got into the editing, I became less interested in things that might be the focus of a more traditional biography film. Where was he born, who are his parents, really basic history of his life, became less important than what he is about now. I also wanted to include things that other people who know him and have great respect for him and his work had said about him. These are things that, because of his humility, he would never say about himself, but I felt it was important to have some outside perspective.
R: So, has Kent seen the film and, if so, what has been his response to it? DHD: Kent watched the film twice so far. The first time was with a group of friends in Northern Arkansas, and his only complaint was that the opening music was “The Old Joe Clark,” and he prefers other old time fiddle tunes to that one. I was told by other attendees that he got a good number of laughs out of the film and he’s told me personally that he’s quite happy with it. But you should ask him yourself.
Following through with Doug’s suggestion, I called Kent and he seemed happy to respond. Kent said that, despite his initial reluctance to do the film, he has been impressed with how Doug put the story together, in that Doug “lets the film speak for itself,” and that the film is “not pro or con, just portrays what I am.” When I expressed my own gratitude for the film, Kent joked that it “came out better than I had feared,” and then said “I’ll give him credit for that.“Megan Hollingsworth has worked with Heartwood, a locally-based regional forest protection organization, since 1995, and is an advocate for ecological and human health. She received her BS in Public Health Education from Indiana University in 1997 and will begin work on a Masters in Public Health Education at IU in the Fall. She now practices massage therapy in Bloomington.