Brave New West profiles self-described hermit and environmental activist Jim Stiles, above, who has fought for the last 20 years to save open space in the American West.
From its vast and stunning landscapes to the frontier mentality of its inhabitants, few regions inspire a stronger sense of place than the American West. Hell, even a mogul from Las Vegas has the wherewithal to realize that this just might be the Last Best Place (and one might wonder where such a mogul acquires such a sense of poetry). In any case, the West screams “story,” so it’s no surprise that its ranks have been and likely will always remain packed with storytellers of the highest order.
Until recently, writing, photography and to some extent film have been the chief mediums to convey those stories. Now, with the advent of relatively inexpensive, increasingly convenient and technically superior video-production equipment, documentary film has carved itself a healthy chunk of the West’s narrative.
None of the above comes as news to either Doug Hawes-Davis or Drury Gunn Carr, the twin creative powers behind the documentary production company High Plains Films. Individually, they’ve been building video chronicles, mostly in and about the West, since the early ’90s, and they’ve now collaborated for well over a decade. Hawes-Davis founded the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in 2003, and two years later the pair kick-started the Big Sky Film Institute, a nonprofit designed to facilitate both the production of independent documentary films and their exposure to a wide audience.
A keystone effort in the latter mission is the Big Sky Film Series, a monthly screening at the Wilma Theatre coinciding with the downtown First Friday arts celebration. The screenings are free to the public, though it’s my understanding that the beer is not—the Institute’s largesse does have limits.
Though screenings include varied filmmakers, themes and projects, this Friday’s feature is home grown; Brave New West is the latest High Plains film to hit wide release, having traveled the festival circuit since the spring. Fresh on the heels of an Emmy nomination for their 2004 film Libby, MT (Outstanding Continuing Coverage of a News Story, Long Form)—which was purchased last year by the PBS documentary series P.O.V.—Hawes-Davis and Carr are looking to ride the wave of momentum with their new feature. It’s a mostly loving look at Western environmental icon and noted curmudgeon Jim Stiles, who recently penned the book Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed, from which the film takes its name.
Stiles is a Kentucky native who moved to Moab, Utah, in the mid-’70s, a self-styled disciple of author Edward Abbey and his rousing tome, Desert Solitaire. Like Abbey before him, Stiles found work as a national park ranger and then became an important voice for environmental and growth issues in the region, though Stiles’ profile cuts a leaner figure than that of the nearly sainted Abbey.
In comparison to Abbey’s star, which ascended rather quickly and burned brightly, Stiles is a bit of a grinder, having hand-produced a bimonthly paper, The Canyon County Zephyr, for nearly 20 years. With a masthead claim of “Clinging Hopelessly to the Past Since 1989” and a website tag that reads “All the News That Causes Fits,” the Zephyr has its share of impassioned devotees. As a one-man crusade against rampant development and wanton environmental degradation, Stiles is a compelling figure indeed—though at first Hawes-Davis and Carr were unaware of the depth of his personality, and of his resources.
Having been steered Stiles’ way by musician and frequent High Plains collaborator Ned Mudd (who doubles as a Zephyr contributor), Hawes-Davis and Carr planned on spending a week with Stiles and cooking up a film they figured would clock in at about 10 minutes. When Stiles’ personality and body of work kept producing quality content as they dug deeper and deeper, they ended up making a half-dozen trips to Utah and a full-length feature film.
“After a couple of days with him it became clear that Stiles could pull a feature,” says Hawes-Davis. “He’s a born journalist and a fanatic documentarian, which is what really drew us to him.”
The considerable archives Stiles carries with him includes some classic Super-8 footage shot by a college-aged Stiles and a friend as they sojourned from Kentucky through the West. Stiles’ pack-ratting came in handy when he handed the filmmakers the original audio tapes from a portable machine carried by Stiles in the footage, enabling them to sync the audio and breathe life into a previously silent, goofy bit shot under a Wyoming welcome sign.
Other archival gems include a significant amount of stunning footage of Glen Canyon, before it became the bottom of Lake Powell. A pet cause of both Abbey and Stiles, the argument to remove Glen Canyon Dam is lent considerable weight by the 16mm footage, shot by an amateur cinematographer named Henry Clark. It’s great stuff, a mix of classic beauty shots that hint at the canyon’s majesty and recreational shots of people enjoying the area through raft trips, bonfires and the like. And until Brave New West, it had never seen the light of day.
“Again, that was the Stiles network,” says Hawes-Davis of Stiles’ work in uncovering the old reels through Clark’s son Dave. “If anybody could dig up footage of Glen Canyon, Stiles is it.”
Currently, Hawes-Davis and Carr have several feature projects in varying levels of production, including one film that promises to view the relationship between man and nature through the prism of two rivers, the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork—simply one more in the seemingly boundless array of Western stories.
“I don’t believe that movies change the world in major ways—it’s more like one person at a time. But that doesn’t make them any less valuable,” says Hawes-Davis. “I do have some faith that good information, artistry and good humor can connect with people.”
Brave New West screens at the Wilma Theatre Friday, Oct. 3, at 7 PM as the last film of the Big Sky Film series’ 2008 season. Free.