In the early ’90s, Carr and Hawes-Davis were students at the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program. As they got close to graduation, neither wanted to write a hundred-page thesis that few would read. Instead, each began his own documentary film project. Hawes-Davis made The Element of Doom, about a mining company’s environmental pollution in Missouri. Carr followed with Mining Seven-Up Pete, about a proposed mine near Montana’s Blackfoot River.
"The whole process of making The Element of Doom was encouraging," says Hawes-Davis. "I didn’t know how to use all the equipment or edit, but the experience was personally empowering." Carr says he and Hawes-Davis had similar visions: They wanted to make environmental documentaries, but they were fed up with stale and predictable films about endangered species and threatened wildlife habitats. They wanted to make movies that delivered a message — without force-feeding the audience a moral.
"There are dozens of environmental film festivals across the country, there are tons of media outlets, our messages are out there. So why aren’t our messages getting across?" asks Carr. "I think it’s because we’re preaching to people."
Carr and Hawes-Davis started High Plains Films in 1992, intending to create more complex environmental films. Unfortunately, their dream didn’t come furnished with equipment, expertise or a paycheck. They rented gear, slaved at side jobs, and worked on low-profile short films and instructional films for conservation organizations.
In 1997, with $6,000 in grant money from a couple of environmental nonprofits, the two began work on their first feature-length documentary, Varmints — an alternately humorous and violent view of the controversies surrounding prairie dogs. In Varmints, some of the trademark qualities of a High Plains film emerged. With few exceptions, characters aren’t identified until the end credits roll, and there is no narration. And instead of a list of solutions, Varmints leaves viewers with a Russian doll full of questions.
When the film was released in 1998, Hawes-Davis and Carr got a surprise: Outside the debut screening in Boulder, Colo., animal-rights advocates urged people not to go in, arguing that the film allotted too much time to the viewpoints of the prairie dog hunters. Inside, one of the film’s central characters, prairie dog hunter Mark Mason, sat in the front row and applauded the show.
"He felt like he was at the Oscars," says former Sierra Club President Jennifer Ferenstein, who worked on the film. "I think it’s a testimony to the quality of the film that they didn’t manipulate him or make him feel belittled or put him in the position to be defensive, because they presented him as he was." This even-handedness, she says, is what separates documentaries from propaganda.
Hawes-Davis says he had some second thoughts when he saw the protesters, but he was ultimately proud that Mason liked the film.
"My goal is certainly not to make a fool out of somebody. We don’t want to do these intense character assassinations," he says.
High Plains has stuck to its even-handed, humane approach to filmmaking. In the company’s three subsequent feature-length documentaries — all shot with minuscule budgets and grant money — Killing Coyote (2000), >I?This Is Nowhere (2002), and most recently, Libby, Montana (2004), the two have retained their austere, narrator-free style and their emphasis on human stories. "Basically, we make the same thing over and over again," says Hawes-Davis. "We make films about people and the natural world."
Carr and Hawes-Davis have never shied away from eliciting strong emotional responses, but the Libby film reaches a new level. It is blunt and painful: A half-dozen residents at the asbestos-poisoned town are interviewed with oxygen tubes up their nostrils. At two-and a-half-hours, Libby is twice as long as anything the two have done previously, but its depth and pace, as well as the fantastic archival footage, give it gravitas. Viewers feel that they are living through the town’s environmental nightmare, and the W.R. Grace Corp. cover-up that followed it (HCN, 3/13/00: Libby’s Dark Secret).
Hawes-Davis and Carr hope Libby will be accepted to national and international film festivals. They’re keeping busy in the meantime: In February, Hawes-Davis and two High Plains interns organized the first Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. The festival showcased a cross-section of documentaries from all genres, styles and formats, some of them dating back to 1969.
High Plains is currently in the pre-production phases of two new and very different works. One will deal with the transformation of Western ranches during the last century. The other may follow a honky-tonk band on a cross-country tour; the two aren’t giving out the details yet.
"My only hope is that we can continue to produce our own independent films," says Hawes-Davis. "You’d think it would become easier and easier, but it doesn’t. We’re always looking for new ideas. But as long as we can keep doing this, we will."
The author writes from Missoula, Montana.
For more information about High Plains Films, see www.highplainsfilms.org.