Art

Filmmakers Filmmakers Dru Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis: Documenting the Evolving West

  • Doug Hawes-Davis, left, and Dru Carr outside the High Plains Film office in Missoula

    Kate Medley
 

MISSOULA, MONTANA — Filmmaking isn’t about big budgets, explosions or special effects for Dru Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis, the only full-time employees at the Missoula, Mont.-based High Plains Films. Instead, it’s the tool they use to document — and, they hope, protect — the ever-evolving West.

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -