87 minutes, 2002, DVCAM

“Filming Nowhere” by Jim Mentink
New England

Documentary filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis goes to Wal-Mart to ask questions about American culture in his latest film THIS IS NOWHERE, which screens this month at the Brattleboro Environmental Film Festival.

It sounds like the setup for a joke: What do you get when you cross a Winnebago, a Wal-Mart and a handful of retirees? The answer isn’t a sidesplitting punchline, but rather the subject of filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis’s latest film, This is Nowhere.

Hawes-Davis describes the film as being about contemporary American culture, and it’s viewed through the eyes of a certain subgroup of retirees who have made it their practice to travel to Wal-Mart stores and camp in the parking lot in RV’s, some of them costing as much as half a million dollars. Although Hawes-Davis himself says it may not fit his definition of camping, he thinks it raises some interesting questions, not the least of which is ‘Why Wal-Mart?’ Full of irony, This is Nowhere humorously captures the essence of American attitudes toward nature, equality, and civic values as it documents RV travelers’ interactions with landscape, technology, communities, and each other.

Hawes-Davis studied political science and philosophy for undergraduate, and then went to Montana to pursue environmental studies. In 1992, he saw an independent wildlife film and was impressed that something could be so dramatic and artistic, yet cost relatively little money. That inspired him to move into filmmaking using his interest in the environment as a springboard. His first video was called The Element of Doom and delved into lead mining on public lands in southeastern Missouri. His latest film titled Libby, Montana deals with healthcare, labor and corporate issues. That theme, linking social issues with environmental issues, is prevalent in This is Nowhere as well.

When asked what his intent was in creating a film, he said that if someone leaves the theatre thinking about the subject then he’s accomplished his goal. Hawes-Davis, whose casual and friendly voice befits that of a man devoted to making a study of the human condition and the world around them, describes the new film ideas they have as being less about issues. He’d even like to do a music documentary “for fun.”

He said he wasn’t setting out to educate necessarily, but rather to ask questions, stating that the film has more questions than answers. As one would assume of a documentary film, no scripts are used—nor are narrators. Hawes-Davis says when making a film he has definite ideas about what they want the film to do, but he doesn’t try to control it. In the critically acclaimed This is Nowhere, he acts as producer, director, sound recordist, editor and camera operator—and enjoys doing them all.

Hawes-Davis is a fan of independent film and founded the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana, a competitive event open to non-fiction films and videos of all styles, genres and lengths, taking place in February.