Interview: Filmmaker David Byars discusses the Patriot movement ahead of Vino Vérité’s screening of ‘No Man’s Land’

Vino Vérité Presents: No Man’s Land

FilmScene — Sunday, July 9 at 6:30 p.m.

Video still from David Byars’ ‘No Man’s Land.’

This Sunday, July 9, documentarian David Byars is bringing his incendiary new film, No Man’s Land, to FilmScene as part of the Vino Vérité series, presented by FilmScene, Little Village and Bread Garden Market. Tickets are $20 for FilmScene members, $25 for the general public. The film begins at 7:15 p.m., with hors d’oeuvres & wine tasting preceding at 6:30 p.m. A wine and dessert reception with the filmmaker begins at 8:45 p.m. The film is an intimate look behind the barricades and firing lines of the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff between members of the Patriot movement and the U.S. federal government. Byars attempts to capture the root of the frustration and unrest which continue to drive our national zeitgeist.

The most striking thing about Byars film, at least initially, is how gorgeous it is. The Oregonian sky, the chilly winter’s morning and the sheer vastness of the Malheur are laid bare from the first frame. The opening shots also serve as a reminder that the Patriot movement never met a metaphor it didn’t like. We see a man on horseback, holding aloft an American flag, who seems to materialize from the pre-dawn horizon itself. It’s all so reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name character and the Hollywood Western-as-history vibe of the whole occupation.

Byars was able to work with the Duluth, MN slowcore band, Low, for the soundtrack, and the sense of dread the minimalist rockers are able to instill with just a few droning chords and plodding drums sets the tone for things to come. Like much of Low’s music, their deployment in the No Man’s Land soundtrack is spare but hauntingly effective. The intensity of the humming reverb they create ebbs and flows in tandem with the intensity of the events on screen.

One of Byars’ greatest instincts was to allow the occupiers to speak for themselves. The inclusion of footage from blogs, Facebook posts and YouTube channels created by the occupiers humanizes the movement while allowing some ideologues to rhetorically hang themselves with their own faulty logic and hypocrisy. Byars never seems to have an axe to grind as a filmmaker. Instead, he prefers to empathize with the collective frustrations and anxieties of the occupiers while also letting the voices of residents of nearby Burns, Oregon and activists from the Shoshone tribes and the Black Lives Matters movement frame the larger debate.

Byars’ ultimate aim for No Man’s Land is an attempt to tune out the static and tone down the rhetoric underpinning what many perceive to be a frightening political movement. This allows for a realistic assessment of the Patriot movement. No Man’s Land makes clear that a national discussion needs to take place but so long as no one is willing to concede any ground, literally or figuratively, tensions will continue to escalate.

We caught up with David Byars in the lead up to the screening to talk about No Man’s Land, life in the occupation and his thoughts about where to go from here.

David Byars’ ‘No Man’s Land’ includes footage from blogs, Facebook posts and YouTube channels created by the occupiers. — Video still

For the uninitiated, can you explain the dispute over federal lands spearheaded by the Bundy family? How do the Malheur and Bunkerville standoffs relate to one another? How did you get involved?

Cliven Bundy [a Nevada rancher and patriarch of the Bundy family] took issue with the way the federal government managed the public land he was leasing from the federal government. In response, Bundy stopped paying grazing fees [in 1993] and after decades of not paying fees Bundy owed over $1 million in fees and penalties. In 2014 the government came for the cattle and in response, Bundy put out the call to arms and a bunch of folks with guns showed up for what became the big standoff at Bunkerville. It culminated in those iconic shots of militia snipers setting up on an overpass and the federal agents backing down. It was seen as a big victory for Cliven Bundy and the Patriot movement as a whole.

The sons of Cliven, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, were the leaders of the standoff at the Malheur. The Bundys mobilized after learning of the Hammonds, a father and son who’d been sent to jail for arson [on federal land] and, upon being released, were sent back to jail due to mandatory minimums. The Hammonds ultimately distanced themselves from the Malheur standoff because they sought clemency. Soon the tone of the occupation morphed into general anti-government sentiment.

I was fascinated by Bunkerville and went there with a camera operator and caught the whole thing. There was a rally and then a bunch of guys rode ATVs over a protected canyon. I made a short out of it that screened at a couple festivals. People were intrigued and it was clear the movement would continue to poke the federal government in the eye. When the events of Malheur drew in some of the more serious characters from the Patriot movement, I immediately flew to Portland and then drove the rest of the way.

How did you ingratiate yourself with a group known for paranoia and distrust of the media? At one point the FBI had posed as documentarians and essentially interrogated the Bundys on-camera. They even plied a militia member with alcohol and encouraged him to disclose incriminating information.

It’s an interesting paradox because they are paranoid about the media and necessarily so. The media shoves microphones in their face and often tries to get the craziest person to say something stupid as if they were the spokesperson for the whole movement. But on the other hand they wanted people to hear their message. For them the media became a double edged sword. I spent time with the occupiers away from the camera. We talked about a lot of different issues. I tried to be a regular guy and not badger them. Ultimately we found little islands of common ground: We were all against the militarization of the police as well as opposition to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Initially it seemed like the Malheur standoff was about land but pretty quickly that faded into a larger anti-government narrative. Was there a coherent message to the standoff?

After the Hammonds disavowed the occupation, it morphed into an amorphous miasma of differing motivations and no coherent message. The leadership couldn’t even keep a tight rein on who was physically present at the site. The Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and the Pacific Patriots Network couldn’t agree on who would be the spokesperson. Many residents of Harney County turned against the occupation. Eventually Ammon took a step back and LaVoy [Finicum] took over. Finally the FBI showed-up, rumors began to swirl, groupthink set-in and a common refrain at the refuge became: “No more Waco.” The occupiers were under the impression that if the government swept-in [as they had at Waco] that the country would rise-up to overthrow the government.

‘No Man’s Land’ screens Sunday, July 9 at FilmScene as part of the Vino Vérité series. — Video still

It’s fascinating to learn the occupiers thought the nation would rally to their cause over a grazing dispute when, almost every day, people of color are openly being murdered by police and most Americans have remained silent.

Right! I would frequently tell the occupiers that their natural allies are Black Lives Matter, not Blue Lives Matter. The NRA is currently putting out this horrible call to arms and yet ignoring the fact that Philando Castile was shot, by a police officer, for having a gun that he legally owned.

Your film is punctuated by a number of talking head-style interviews. Three that stood out were: Hal Herring (journalist), Jason Patrick (occupier) and Pete Santilli (vocal occupier).

Initial cuts of the film were very much vérité but without any broader context. I began getting frustrated. My editor finally suggested that we provide context and commentary. Thus the interviews.

I found Hal Herring because of his article, “The darkness at the heart of Malheur” for High Country News. He nailed it. That article is great journalism and really drove home what the occupation meant.

Jason Patrick came from a much more principled point of view than a lot of others. I like the man. I disagree with him on a lot of things but he had earnest motivation for being there. He also remained consistent despite the many contradictions of the Patriot movement.

Pete Santilli represents the id of the occupation; the most untethered, uncensored version of what people were thinking. He also set himself up as the occupation’s press agent and filmed himself the entire time. He was a character and provided the film with such dynamism — a great counterpoint to the very measured steadiness of Ammon Bundy.

Did the irony that the land was once the domain of tribes like the Shoshone and Paiute ever dawn on anyone or that the leadership had taken federal funds for help with drought and disaster relief, business loans and animal control?

The Paiutes were very vocal in their displeasure at having people occupying their sacred land. The occupiers would say, “We want to return this land to the original owners” and the Paiutes would ask, “What about us?” The occupiers responded by requesting the Paiutes join the occupation and suggested they’d hash everything else out later.

I believe leasing federal land is pennies on the dollar compared to market rates. Though the irony was not lost on anyone with perspective there was always deflection when talking to [occupiers]. They’d try to undercut the argument by saying the federal government is illegitimate in managing this land.

Did you ever reach a point in which the cognitive dissonance was too deafening to hold your tongue?

No. I’m pretty good at holding my tongue. But one of my producers got so angry a couple times.

Though no one has a monopoly on reality, how much of the occupation was based in fantasy? The film feels like a microcosm of current U.S. politics. Do you see any solution?

Fantasy played a large role in a number of ways. These guys were drawn to this fantasy idea of a “good vs. evil” conflict. Reality is infinitely more nuanced. They may feel disempowered or disenfranchised or that they were born in the wrong era. They very much have a Hollywood [Western] peephole to a past that maybe never existed. Even LaVoy Finicum saw this as an incredibly noble cause.

In terms of solutions … I worry that people don’t have the self-awareness to deal with the dysphoria of not being right. We’re not looking for discourse or challenges to our way of thinking. Right now we are being spoon fed confirmation wherever we look. And if you try to get outside of that confirmation you fail the purity test and become a pariah within your own in-group … Donald Trump is a caricature of our worst instincts as a nation.

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