32 minutes, 2001, DVCAM/Super 8

“Nature Boy:  An extraordinary life in the Ozarks documented in film The Naturalist”
The Herald-Times, July 22, 2004
By Mike Leonard

Kent Bonar, at home in the woods, in the documentary THE NATURALIST. The 30-minute film is screening Wednesday night at Bear’s Place.

High Plains Films is a remarkable non-profit film production company.

Based in Missoula, Mont., it has produced and distributed 14 documentaries since 1992, all with the focus of exploring mankind’s relationship with the natural world.

Varmints is a quirky and disturbing look at the strange culture of people who gleefully kill groundhogs by the hundreds because they consider them pests. Wind River examines water rights issues in Wyoming in a way that also sheds light on traditions, greed and the sustainability of certain lifestyles.

Just this week, producer Doug Hawes-Davis was agonizing over his final edits to what might be his company’s biggest film to date: LIBBY, MONTANA. The city of 6,000 people is where vermiculite mining over decades has resulted in such severe airborne asbestos pollution that the Environmental Protection Agency calls it the worst community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in U.S. history.

But with the 2001 film THE NATURALIST, Hawes-Davis explores the life-affirming world of Kent Bonar, a modern Thoreau quietly leading an extraordinary life in the wilds of the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks.

“I love THE NATURALIST for that,” Hawes-Davis said by phone this week. “Kent’s story is such a cheerful one, ultimately. He’s doing what he wants to do and providing inspiration for society in his own way. I loved making that film.”

The Naturalist will be screened Wednesday at Bear’s Place as part of the Ryder Film Series. Admission is $4 and half of the proceeds will go to support the work of High Plains Films.

The half-hour documentary was four years in the making, and Bonar was not exactly an eager participant. Hawes-Davis met him a decade ago when meeting with other people involved in the forest protection movement, and convinced him to submit to being filmed on the argument that his example would be a powerful statement in support of his values.

A brilliant loner, Bonar spends his days trekking through the Ozarks, hunting for food, hiking with his dogs and meticulously detailing the natural world around him. He sketches out flora, fauna and all living things in exacting detail in his note pads. He knows from memory both the scientific name and common term for virtually everything he sees.

“It’s natural history at its base level based on observation,” Hawes-Davis said. “Natural history is discovering things first-hand in the field, and that’s what he does.”

With a patch over one eye and his clothes always tattered, Bonar looks much older than the 45 he was when filming was completed. Some would call him eccentric while others will no doubt find him inspiring. “The way I look at it, nature is God’s creation, so the way to properly study God is to study his works,” Bonar says in the film.

While most High Plains Films are “relentlessly issue-oriented,” The Naturalist glistens through beautiful nature cinematography and a compelling look at the life of one man dedicated to observing and preserving the natural world around him.

It’s proof that a documentary can be both serious and entertaining. And while it’s nothing like the work of Michael Moore, Hawes-Davis says he likes most of Moore’s work, including Fahrenheit 9/11. “I have some problems with his films stylistically. I feel like he can get in the way of his own work sometimes. The antics and things that deviate from the documentary form are entertaining but not necessary.”

Hawes-Davis credits Moore and other documentary film makers for doing work that has made documentaries viable. “Jeez, we’re getting Miramax and Columbia Tri-Star asking for copies of our films, and five years ago, I don’t think that would have happened,” he said. “My fear is that with this rise in the popularity of documentaries, people will come to expect them all to have an entertainment factor that just isn’t going to be appropriate with certain subject matter.”