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I sat down with first-time documentary director David Garrett Byars during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss his journey making his riveting film No Man’s Land. Byars also wrote, produced and was the cinematographer on this project, which gives a gripping on-the-ground account of the 2016 standoff between protestors occupying Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and federal authorities.
In January of 2016, protestors gathered in Burns, Oregon to denounce the federal sentencing of two ranchers. During the protest, a group led by Ammon Bundy broke off and took over nearby Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The occupation quickly attracted a stew of right-wing militia and protestors. What began as a protest to condemn the sentencing morphed into a catchall for those eager to register their militant antipathy toward the federal government. The Malheur occupation drew the national spotlight, attracting media fascinated by the spectacle of cowboys and militia rebelling against the federal government. The siege also attracted the attention of the FBI, who set up a command center nearby to counter the occupiers. During the 41-day siege, events at Malheur took a bloody turn when federal agents waylaid the leaders of the occupation en route to a community meeting. A car chase ensued that resulted in the arrests of the entire insurgency leadership and the dramatic on-camera shooting death of LaVoy Finicum, the semi-official spokesman for the group.
Susan Kouguell: What drew you to this project?
David Garrett Byars: I started following the whole patriot movement as it related to public lands back in May of 2014. When I heard the Bundys were coming to Recapture Canyon to protest, it was about three hours west of where I was living in Colorado, which is right next door in terms of Western spaces. I drove out there with my friend Jim Hurst, who is a co-producer on the film. We realized this story was something much bigger. What we saw there were people who were very upset over a very small road closure to motorized vehicles. You could still walk there, ride horses, bike, drive a herd of cattle over the road, but the only thing you couldn’t do was drive a car or an ATV over it. It was clear that it was just a Talisman of this rural frustration particularly in the West with the federal government distrust. I saw the patriot movement as it related to public lands as a good avenue to explore this rural rage.
Susan Kouguell: How were you able to get this unbridled access to the Bundys and protesters?
David Garrett Byars: Since I followed this movement for about two and a half years I knew of a couple of them and had been in contact with a couple of them, so when I got there I had a little bit of a leg up than the rest of the media. Also, the rest of the media kind of put microphones in people’s faces, and some of them were just trying to get to them to say the most outrageous things possible to get it on the Evening News in order to say, ‘There you go, these crazy people.’ I told them I wanted to tell the more human side of the story, and they thought that was hippie dippy BS. It was spending time with them, putting the camera down, sitting with them at the campfire and being very respectful of them and their privacy; I think that’s what allowed them to allow me to start filming more and get more intimate moments with them.
Susan Kouguell: In the film, you presented a neutral point-of-view; you didn’t disrespect the Bundys or the patriot movement, and powerfully conveyed both sides of the story.
David Garrett Byars: I could have made a real preaching-to-the-choir type of movie but then I thought no one would learn anything from that.
Susan Kouguell: Tell me about the writing process.
David Garrett Byars: I was constantly writing and rewriting as things were happening, before the occupation. Originally it was going to be more of an essay-type film. When the arc dropped out of the sky, it was a new story and I’m glad. There are essay type films about the patriot movement, but I hadn’t seen a film about public lands, and I’d rather have a narrative arc-driven film than an essay-style film. When we decided to use talking head interviews rather than purely the cinema vérité form, David Osit (editor) and I sat across from each other with a script and said exactly what we wanted to say at each moment, according to our timeline. So basically we had a timeline of our vérité footage and then we said this is what we want someone to say here, and this is what we want to say there.
Susan Kouguell: Instead of using a voiceover to give background information on the movement and occupation, various journalists were interviewed, which was very effective.
David Garrett Byars: I didn’t want to use the voice of god. I grew up on one side of the political spectrum, and I’m on the other side of the political spectrum. I think that transition gives me a bit of insight. We live in a country where everyone is pointing the finger at the other side and saying, ‘You’re wrong, and because I disagree with you, you’re a bad person.’ By saying ‘you’re wrong’ – it claims a moral higher ground.
Susan Kouguell: Did you work from an outline or a script?
David Garrett Byars: Initially we went very chronologically. We put an assembly in chronological order and started picking and choosing. I did the whole note cards thing. My editor didn’t. We had it in a cinema vérité form and once that was done we saw that it didn’t say what it needed to say. We were tossing out a lot of ideas with Lana Wilson our story consultant and our editor David Osit. We reached out to journalists who were there and reached out to experts. We wanted to stay at the refuge as much as possible. That was a lynchpin moment in terms of the direction we were in. We could have made this very artsy, purely cinema vérité film, but it would have been emptier and devoid of meaning.
Susan Kouguell: You mentioned that there was a natural arc to the story that you didn’t expect. Please elaborate.
David Garrett Byars: When the Bundys took over the line in Oregon in 2016, it was a situation in which they were forcing the federal government to react; there was going to be some sort of reaction and some sort of ending with this standoff. We already had the inciting incident, and in just pure story terms, there were things that were going to happen, and there was going to be some type of ending. As a documentary filmmaker, I feel like we are forced to find an ending or more of an emotional ending than an actual physical ending, unless of course you are making a film about a political campaign or a football season. It was definitely something I knew I had to jump on top of and take advantage of because to have this narrative arc and to move you through this whole question of how we got to this current movement of American Zeitgeist was really compelling to put you through to the larger question.
Susan Kouguell: For a first-time documentary filmmaker, you have quite the impressive team of producers. How did this come about?
David Garrett Byars: I was at the Refuge and David Holbrooke, who was just a mentor at that point, called me up and said you need to put a two-minute reel together and make a postcard, and come down to Sundance. I flew home to Telluride, got my car, because I was hemorrhaging money on car rentals – money that I didn’t have. I drove out to Sundance and met Morgan Spurlock, basically on the street because David knew him. I gave Spurlock the card, and he said it looks awesome and to send him the film link. Soon after, he said that looks great; we’re going for it. It was really so quick. I then met one of the executives from Warrior Poets, we laid out the basic terms of the agreement, and I drove out back to Oregon the next day. Every moment I was at Sundance I was stressing about missing something in Oregon.
Susan Kouguell: At what point did the story intention of your film change?
David Garrett Byars: When we moved into postproduction, these guys were all arrested. This was a film that was going to come out and these guys would be in jail and Hillary Clinton was going to be president. Obviously, none of those things happened. We were perhaps awakened a bit earlier than everyone else what America was beginning to look like; what it really looked like. Trump was just a lens and we were able to see what America really is. We were hyper aware of this because we were making this film, so we were incorporating this into the film as it occurred. Of course, the results came back in November of both the trial and the presidential election, and it was not what we expected.
Susan Kouguell: This was November and now it’s April, and the film is having its world premiere at Tribeca. That’s pretty fast in terms of the editing and postproduction process.
David Garrett Byars: We didn’t change much with the ending thematically. I think almost every documentary filmmaker’s kind of urge is to make a film somehow related to Trump. We had a natural avenue to do that, but we didn’t want to go too heavy on that. We wanted to take time and made sure that we were confident with what we were going to do. We had to incorporate the new trials into the ending. Trump wasn’t the driving force of why the film changed, but it was effective.