Revisiting the Malheur occupation: Utah Film Center sets livestream event with No Man’s Land documentary

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published June 1 but as the Utah Film Center has rescheduled the livestream event of this documentary to June 23 at 7 p.m., The Utah Review is republishing this feature review today. Viewers also should take note that another film by the same director (David Garrett Byars), the 2020 documentary Public Trust, will be screened on June 24 at 7 p.m., followed by a Q&A with the director and moderator Doug Fabrizio of KUER-FM’s RadioWest program. Watch The Utah Review tomorrow (June 23) for a feature look at the Public Trust screening event.

Four years ago, in the early days of the 41-day occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy along with LaVoy Finicum, there was little to suggest that the anarchists had figured out their Plan A of action much less than any alternatives should their initial course fail.

Ryan Bundy told John Sepulvado at Oregon Public Broadcasting that if the townspeople would ask them to leave, they would do so peacefully and the occupiers would convene a community meeting. Meanwhile, Les Zaitz, a senior investigative reporter at The Oregonian, tweeted, “A key militant leader at the refuge was surprised to hear of statement they would leave if locals wanted them to. He hung up to go check.”

Scene from No Man’s Land, directed by David Byars.

This dynamic reverberates throughout No Man’s Land, an excellent 2017 documentary about the Malheur occupation by David Garrett Byars, which the Utah Film Center will present in a livestream event Tuesday, June 23, at 7 p.m. This is an excellent prelude to a June 24 livestream event, beginning at 7 p,m., featuring Byars’ latest documentary Public Trust, which will be followed by a Q&A with the director and moderator Doug Fabrizio of KUER-FM RadioWest.

The newest film focuses on how conservation efforts achieved during the Obama Administration for Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have been systematically undone during the Trump Administration. The documentary (which will be featured tomorrow in a preview article at The Utah Review) was produced by Robert Redford and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. It was premiered earlier this year at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. Both livestream events are free and public.

No Man’s Land, directed by David Byars.

Highly recommended as the introductory course to the forthcoming screening of Public Trust, No Man’s Land appears as fresh as ever in its content, treatment and perspective. The Malheur occupation was an early warning sign of the current turbulent political scene. And, Ammon Bundy and his followers once again have engaged in public mischief. In April, Bundy, who has publicly criticized social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, published the home address of a Meridian, Idaho police officer. And, later he showed up at the officer’s home to protest the arrest of a woman who was charged with misdemeanor trespassing after she refused to leave a playground that had been closed because of the pandemic. Bundy said during the protest, according to a KTVB-TV news report, that “we’re going to put him [the officer] on notice.”

In the trial after the Malheur occupation, Bundy and his followers, with one exception, were acquitted of conspiracy charges. Finicum was killed as he tried to flee at the end of the occupation.

Byars captures the breadth and depth of the Malheur crisis with a properly dispassionate tone and factual heft, while conveying the mounting tension during the six-week occupation. There are followers of the occupation who articulate what could be framed as legitimate concerns. It is intriguing to see the restraint Harney County law enforcement officials – including those of the federal government – and elected local authorities used particularly at the outset and in the early phases of the occupation. However, it also becomes evident that the townspeople no longer tolerate their presence, as the occupation has disrupted their routine in the community life. Byars also features several prominent journalists who covered the crisis, including Zaitz and Hal Herring, one of the most distinguished writers on the issues of public lands and a contributing editor to Field and Stream.

No Man’s Land makes apparent that the occupiers seemed far more interested in their visibility in front of cameras and reporters than in the tactics of what precisely they were attempting to accomplish in the occupation. They were stuck on their basic complaints about being fed up by the government’s so-called bullying efforts to secure public land claims. In several moments of the film, the occupiers are more concerned with portraying romanticized images of the American cowboy in the West while they are convinced that their images supersede accusations of acting as domestic terrorists.

Scene from No Man’s Land, directed by David Byars.

As Herring wrote in a marvelous first-hand report published in 2016 just two weeks into the occupation, “It is hard to say, exactly, what the plan is. In talks around the fire at the guard post, occupiers like Sean and Sandy Anderson, a husband-and-wife team originally from Wisconsin, now of Riggins, Idaho, range too widely to nail down any certain philosophy. Most people I meet are both armed and very friendly, and we talk, as we talk around campfires across America, about guns, and politics, and land and work. I make it absolutely clear that I do not agree with any plans to turn over America’s public lands to the states, or counties, or private individuals, and that is no problem—people here disagree all the time. There is a range of politics here from the utterly bizarre to the moderate right. Pretty much any U.S. president [Obama, at the time] one brings up for the past 30 years is despised, though some, like the current resident of the White House, are hated.”

Herring also appears in Byars’ latest film (Public Trust). The director has an excellent grasp for situating the issue within the tenor and context of current political moments and tensions. Contra Bundy and backers of the current president, there appears to be solid bipartisan consensus on the issue of public lands. Earlier this year, a University of Montana telephone survey with a sample of 500 respondents who are registered voters in the state indicated “a majority of respondents from both political parties stated that protections for Wilderness Study Areas in Montana should either remain as they are or be increased. Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) are places identified by the U.S. Congress as having specific wilderness characteristics, and as potentially eligible for national designation as wilderness areas.”

Scene from No Man’s Land, directed by David Byars.

In 2019, a Colorado College poll covering eight states in the West showed similarly widespread majorities among Utah voters: “Three-in-five Utah voters polled also said they want the new Congress to place more emphasis on protecting water, air quality and wildlife habitat. More than half want states to invest in conserving wildlife corridors used for migration. Most said access to public lands is a significant reason they live in the West.”

No Man’s Land highlights a persistent conflict that has been part of the history of the West for centuries, as Mark Bailey, one of the founders of Torrey House Press, explained in 2016 during the height of the Malheur occupation. He cited one of their earliest published books, Renee Thompson’s Plume Hunter. “The conflicts between folks who want to freely plunder the land at will and the rest of us who want to protect it have been going on almost since Europeans first arrived,” Bailey said. “With Ruby Ridge and Waco perhaps on their mind the feds are reluctant to intervene. Peaceful protesters trying to protect public land, like Tim DeChristopher, spend two years in federal prison. The gun toting anarchists like the Bundys roam free. But all the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative and the Bureau of Land Management have so far is that, ‘We will continue to monitor the situation.’ It is an obvious moral hazard to allow guns to continue to rule.”

Those questions are more acute than ever and do not just apply to the issue of public lands. No Man’s Land certainly points the viewer toward a clearer, more constructive path for considering the issues at hand and the political will and response needed to balance concerns for responding them to achieve the best possible objective.  

3 COMMENTS

  1. Have you seen other documentaries about this occupation? The American standoff? LaVoy Dead Man Talking?

    What is the purpose of this No Mans Land documentary? I wonder if it gives a correct representation of both sides.

    Knowing a lot about this subject myself, I’d like to point out a few corrections to your article that might be helpful.

    1. Your first paragraph says they were anarchists, the definition of an anarchist is someone who wants no rule. You can view LaVoy Finicum on YouTube in his own words multiple time expressing the need for a government with proper roles and rules.

    2. In the second paragraph you say “Les Zaitz, a senior investigative reporter at The Oregonian, tweeted, “A key militant leader at the refuge was surprised to hear of statement they would leave if locals wanted them to.”
    Again the definition of a militant is someone in a militia, the militia that showed up (idaho III percenters- real militia) were asked to leave, they did not stay. That is also documented by the leader of the Idaho III percenters.
    while you are quoting someone else it is important to also fact check them for they error in calling them militants.

    It’s interesting how labeling makes such a difference, it can cost a man his life. That age old phrase ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ is a lie. Words matter, I think you can appreciate that being a journalist yourself.
    Take care.

  2. While I appreciated the inside footage, the film did not provide the viewers the answer of ‘why’ the occupiers were petitioning the government for a redress of grievance. It is interesting and curious that the conscience shocking case history of the Oregon ranching Hammond family was not covered in detail. Detailing the circumvention of law would have laid the ground work for the viewers of the ‘why’ behind these cowboys grievance.

    For these reasons and many others it seems this film is more in alignment with what Hollywood and all its counter parts are stereotyped to be, which is to provide their customers with a sensationalized played out drama for mainly entertainment purposes, leaving the facts on the sideline.

    Another thing that was interesting was how the producer showed scenes wherein a militia guy is coaching, who the viewer assumes are other occupiers, how to handle a gun, shoot, and self defend. This session of “training” left the viewer to believe the occupiers were violent. But when the producer shows the not guilty verdicts of the occupiers at the end with commentary suggesting such a verdict to be crazy, the producer neglects to mention how that very scene that makes the occupiers look like they were conspiring for violence, was actually orchestrated by government paid informants whose mission was to incriminate the occupiers and how that very militia person in the scene who was training them testified on the stand in behalf of the occupiers. It’s interesting how the truth is so easily twisted by leaving out key components.

    For a documentary to be truly a creditable source of information, wouldn’t it need to include the entire story, court findings and all?

    A man died in this story and he, as a human being, deserves to be represented correctly.

    Try watching LaVoy: Dead Man Talking. Mark Herr, the producer of that documentary tells the story in its true light.

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