Shining a Light on the Politics of Public Lands: David Garrett Byars on his Documentary Public Trust
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Public trust

David Garrett Byars made his documentary debut in 2017 with No Man's Land, a compelling chronicle of the occupation of Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 (I spoke to him about it during its Tribeca premiere). In the largely verité film, he succeeds not only in painting sensitive portraits of the occupiers and their opponents of the government, but also in communicating the larger social and political movements that have led his characters to behave as they did . This eye for explanation of complex issues is reflected in his second film, Public Trust, published by Patagonia Films on September 25th. This new project looks at all of the United States' public land at the national level – national parks, monuments, wildlife sanctuaries, and other administrative entities – and looks at the people struggling to preserve them and those who want to privatize or use them for Profit and its intrinsic value to wildlife and local human populations.

The battle for public land has been going on since the days of John Muir's struggle to preserve Hetch Hetchy Valley and the greater Yosemite area, but like many other things, it has grown in urgency under the Trump administration. And while Byars stays away from partisanship, viewers can't help but acknowledge the centralization and strengthening of the anti-public land forces in recent years. Public Trust focuses on three areas as proxy for all public areas in the United States: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's north coast, the Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the northeast corner of Minnesota. These areas have been in the news a lot, even after the events shown in the film. Just last month, Trump's Home Office announced plans to allow oil drilling in ANWR, leading to a lawsuit by groups of local indigenous peoples denying that insufficient impact assessments had been carried out on the region's massive caribou herd – an argument and indeed a caribou population who play a central role in Byars' film and are now making its release in time.

Public Trust was produced by Patagonia Films, a division of the outdoor apparel manufacturer. Although the company has many short films to thank for, this is the third feature after DamNation (2014) and Artifishal (2019). It premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February, where it also won the Big Sky Award, and more recently, it won the Documentary Audience Award at the virtual Woods Hole Film Festival in July. It will be posted to YouTube on Friday, September 25, the day before National Public Lands Day at 5:00 p.m. Eastern / 2:00 p.m. Pacific to reach the maximum global audience and make the most of it.

Filmmakers: No man's land was about a well-defined narrative in a single location, while this film is more thematic and spans the whole country. How did you approach these aspects differently or was it essentially the same process?

Byars: The approach to make Public trust was almost the exact opposite of no mans land. no mans land was a film about a unique event that we used as a platform to explore bigger issues. What we did with it Public trust Start with the topic of public land and then move on to our narrative. As an intellectual exercise, this is great fun, but from a practical filmmaking point of view, it's terrifying. Fortunately, our producer Jeremy Rubingh has spent his entire life studying this topic and was able to draw on his knowledge to point us in the right direction as I looked for relevant narrative channels. What you see Public trust is essentially a parallel with my journey from ignorance to a rudimentary understanding of the public domain and its importance to America. So while no mans land focused on an event and the conclusions / lessons we can draw from it Public trust is more intentional exploration that starts in a more abstract place and then relies on real people and places to give it narrative form.

Filmmakers: How was the production process? Were there special challenges when shooting in such distant locations or did the challenges come from elsewhere?

Byars: The challenge in making a movie on this type of subject is that while there are 640 million acres of public land and they are as tangible as a bag of hammers, it is not really a "thing" and much of the action that the public takes surrounds countries and their disposition occurs in courtrooms, briefs and endless gatherings. This does not result in exciting imagery or a coherent narrative. The goal for us, therefore, was to identify stories that best represent the subject of public land and then put those stories together in a way that makes sense for a documentary. Once we identified these, the task was to find people who were moving and harrowing in those regions and find a narrative tool to bind them all together. The casting for the regions was a little easier because Jeremy already knew about these places and the people who were important to them. The harder part was figuring out a way to tie these geographies together, as well as the historical and philosophical context. This is where (and I say this as a certified redneck) our “Redneck Virgil” Hal Herring came into play. Hal has arranged his whole life around public areas and his career as some kind of public land beat journalist and is also writing a book that I think will definitely be on the subject. So it made sense to let the audience take him away on his journey. So the biggest challenge was figuring out how to capture such a broad subject and such a large physical object, with all its context and baggage, in a relatively small format.

Filmmakers: How did you get on board with Patagonia as a sponsor of the film? Was it something they approached you with or vice versa?

Byars: The story like Public trust really started with a short film I made in 2014 (Reconquest) about a small public country protest. What I saw there seemed to be an example of greater American feelings of powerlessness and a general feeling that things were getting worse and worse. In this case, it had manifested itself as anger at the federal government. I tried to elaborate on this when the Bundys took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge which then gave birth No mans land. In order to Public trust is really a return to the bigger, more recent movie I made in 2014. I wasn't planning on going back to that, but then I ran into Jeremy after a showing of no mans land and Public trust was back on the table after speaking to him and realizing that there was enough history to make a very good public country film, but it would be very difficult to finance. This is where Patagonia Films came in. Your developers, Alex Lowther and Monika McClure, saw it no mans land and had also thought about a public country film. Jeremy and I put together a one-pager that describes the style and methodology of the film, and then Jeremy, Alex, Monika, and I worked together to refine this and get the film through the Patagonia funding approval process. It took a while, but we got out of the process with a vision for the film, a floor plan, and funding for the film. That was when the races started, with me and Jeremy out and about with a crew and the Patagonia folks who gave us current / network perspective as well as production support and later helped us refine the story.

Filmmakers: There's no narrator, but you use maps and graphics to unify different sequences and convey a lot of information. Can you talk about how you conceived these elements and incorporated them into the footage?

Byars: We knew the challenge was to convert a nearly infinite amount of complex data into a manageable amount of information that would give the audience enough understanding to enjoy the movie, but not get stuck in trifles or endless explanations and exceptions. and also brings together the most distant elements of the film. So we came up with a way to use a giant map to (a) help us with the surprisingly daunting task of defining public land, and (b) connect all of our individual narratives to and with each other. If you've ever tried making motion graphics, you know how difficult it is to effectively communicate what you want to the graphic artist. Fortunately, I love making motion graphics. So I worked with a GIS consultant (basically a digital map maker) to get what I needed in terms of satellite imagery and various attribute overlays, and then combined and animated those myself. We then identified other areas that needed visual assistance in terms of explanation or representation. Our editor (Lyman Smith) worked with me to make sure these fit into every moment of the movie and provided a cohesive narrative for themselves.

Filmmakers: Patagonia always has an activist element in its publications; You want to make a real impact. What do you hope to achieve with this film if it comes out during a pandemic and just before a presidential election?

Byars: The original plan The film was supposed to be released much earlier, but as the scope of the film expanded and the timeline of actual events began to unfold, it made sense to move the timeline to accommodate those things. Patagonia saw the opportunity to release it at a time when Americans are making a decision about what the country will be like in the future. And while the film is set in the political sandpit, it really serves to shed some light on how political decisions affect the disposition of public land and, more broadly, all of us. So I hope that this transparency will allow Americans to review their decisions. And as the pandemic continues to devastate our country with signs of continued isolation, Americans are likely to yearn for the kind of spaciousness and freedom that public land offers, and we hope it does a little in these strange and sad times Offers consolation.


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