Film: Lens of compassion

  • Director Peter Richardson films the 2003 Philomath High School graduation

    Photo courtesy of Peter Richardson

Note: This article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about community media in the West.

Philomath, Ore., nestled on the Coast Range’s eastern flanks, looks like an average logging town. On a Saturday afternoon, kids pushing BMX bikes scamper across the main street. American flags hang limp in the late summer heat. In the timber yard, sprinklers water mounds of logs baking beneath the midday sun. The Meet’n Place Tavern is already filled with barrel-chested men.

But Philomath has a story — one that it took an insider to fully understand and tell.

In 1959, timber baron Rex Clemens made an incredible promise to the town’s young people: His Clemens Foundation would pay the college tuition of anyone who graduated from Philomath High School. The scholarships catapulted generations of students to colleges and universities around the country, giving the children of timbermen options beyond the mill.

By 2002, however, the town had changed. Ten of its 12 timber mills had closed. Luxury houses sprouted from old timberland around the town, now an enclave for white-collar urban emigrants. That fall, tensions between old-timers and newcomers ignited a cultural and political clash that tore the community apart.

Some longtime locals felt that the school district, led by Schools Superintendent Terry Kneisler, a Chicago transplant, was undercutting the area’s roots and values. The high school’s new principal deemed the school’s mascot — a drooping, sad-faced Native American dubbed "the Warrior" — insensitive, and whisked the wooden carving into storage. Biology teachers taught students that clear-cutting had adverse effects on forest health. When the Gay/Straight Student Alliance held a day of silence, it galvanized longtime residents to take a stand.

They turned to the Clemens Foundation’s board chairman, Steve Lowther, who embarked on a conservative crusade. He issued an ultimatum: Either Kneisler resigns, or the scholarships disappear.

At the time, Peter Richardson was marketing big-name documentaries in Los Angeles. The struggle in Philomath had personal meaning to the 27-year-old, a 1998 graduate of Philomath High School: He had used a Clemens scholarship to pursue a degree in film at the University of Notre Dame.

Richardson watched as cable news networks descended on the high school, casting it as the latest battleground between liberal and conservative forces. They seized on Lowther’s insistence on creating a dress code, and his habit of labeling liberals "Nazis." It made for a dramatic news flash, but Richardson felt that the media was missing the real story, and fanning the flames of an unnecessary conflagration.

He secured a few thousand dollars from investors, quit his job and moved back to Philomath. "When you make your first movie, there are sacrifices. Something has to give," he says. "Some people max out their credit cards. I moved back in with my parents."

Richardson attended school board meetings and public hearings, and compiled almost 100 hours of interviews with Lowther, Kneisler, students, teachers and other locals. He was there when, after months of debate, the school board chose to renew Kneisler’s contract. He was there when Lowther decided to withdraw the scholarships. His camera rolled as surprised and angry students scrambled to pay for their educations.

For two years, Richardson worked in his childhood bedroom among the relics of his youth — model cars and plastic trophies won in Western riding competitions. He whittled down three months’ worth of interviews and footage to create Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon.

Richardson understood that the battle over curriculum and dress codes stemmed from deep-rooted issues of class and culture. "In the mainstream media, there’s this tendency to fit people and their ideas into right and left. People like Steve (Lowther) are reduced to caricatures," he says. "There is something deeper in his beliefs … He’s fighting for this way of life he believes is dying."

By getting away from the acrimonious public debate and into people’s living rooms, Richardson was able to draw out these deeper beliefs, and in the process, allow his audience to do something they didn’t do at the public hearings: to listen. Left-leaning newcomers, watching the scenes of Lowther at home, realize that history is important, that Philomath’s roots should be respected. More conservative viewers understand that hanging onto mascots and imposing dress codes will not turn back the clock.

Sadly, the quiet, reasoned dialogue between Old West and New that Richardson created on screen never occurred in reality. Lowther and Kneisler and their camps were so deeply ensconced in the fight that they couldn’t see that there were bigger issues at stake, or that they had more in common than they realized: a love of their town, a desire to see Philomath prosper and its children succeed.

In the film, the tragedy becomes apparent at the end of a public hearing on school policies. Everyone has spoken, but traditionalists in the crowd begin chanting for Lowther. As he stands and gives an impromptu speech, demanding, "We want a change," all hope for a compromise fades. Neither side can reverse its course. The scholarships are doomed.

In the end, the fight got the best of Philomath. Despite receiving a new contract, Kneisler left his job as superintendent to work in Portland. Longtime locals took control of the school board, which began emphasizing standardized testing. The class of 2003 was left without money for college. Eventually, the scholarships returned, but with a catch — only students who had lived in the school district for eight or more years and had backgrounds in logging, ranching or agriculture were eligible.

Walking away from the film, the viewer is left with the hollow feeling that Rex Clemens, the timberman who possessed both foresight and a true love for the people who worked for him, would be heartbroken if he could see the town today, divided.

Clear Cut premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, earning praise from critics. But to Richardson, the most important showing happened months before, in Corvallis, Ore. For the first time since 2003, many Philomath residents who had stood on opposing sides of the scholarship fight were in the same room. When the lights came on, Richardson thought that tempers might flare. They didn’t.

"People came back to me and said things like, ‘I hadn’t really thought about it,’ or, ‘It was interesting to hear the other perspective,’ " he says. "I knew then I had gotten it right."

In the last four years, Oregon-based writer Fitz Cahall has logged more than 100,000 miles in a battered pickup while exploring and writing about the West.

Watch a trailer at or contact [email protected] for more information.

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