“But as I started talking to people, I began to see a much broader story than I had originally expected,” O’Neill says in a phone interview from her Oakland, Calif., office with The Working Group, a nonprofit media company that utilizes television and the Internet to organize outreach efforts regarding workplace issues, race, diversity, intolerance and democratic participation. The resulting documentary is The Fire Next Time: A Not in Our Town Special, and the Flathead is invited to free sneak previews on Friday, Oct. 15, at the North Valley Community Center in Columbia Falls and on Saturday, Oct. 16, at the Grouse Mountain Lodge’s Glacier Room in Whitefish. Both shows will be at 7 p.m., as was a show scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 13, in Kalispell’s Libby Theater. The original Not in Our Town program documented Billings’ community response to a surge of KKK hate violence in 1993, and its sequel focused on similar activities all over the country. The third chapter in this film series is a step in a different direction.
“There’s certainly an element of that [response to intolerance] in this film, but I think it’s very different than the others,” O’Neill says. The Fire Next Time is a film about how a community deals with conflict, according to O’Neill. In the Flathead, the conflicts that are most apparent, and therefore most represented in the film, are “differences over land use, the environment, growth, change and a diversifying population.”
Yet O’Neill is adamant that her documentary is not actually about any one of those conflicts, but rather about how the Flathead deals with conflict as a whole.
“Ultimately, this film looks at a community in a time of rapid growth and change,” O’Neill says. “This is not a light film. Let’s put it that way.”
In analyzing conflict in the Flathead, O’Neill says, her film focuses on those who are on either pole of an issue (such as Montanans for Multiple Use leader Scott Daumiller and chairman of the Swan View Coalition Keith Hammer, or controversial radio personality John Stokes), as well as those who are “caught in the middle,” such as Kalispell Mayor Pam Kennedy, Flathead County Commissioner Gary Hall, Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner and Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont.
“People in the Flathead made themselves really vulnerable,” O’Neill says. “They really opened up to the camera and I appreciate that. It’s a hard thing to do in an atmosphere where people worry about peer pressure and intimidation on all sides of the issue.” The Fire Next Time nearly broke O’Neill’s budget, but she eventually attracted sponsors from the Independent Television Service (part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), the Sundance Documentary Fund and the Andrews Family Foundation. The film’s title comes from James Baldwin’s 1963 book of the same name, in which Baldwin argued that if blacks and whites didn’t come together they would face destruction. O’Neill sees a similar need to get along—or at least to agree to disagree—in the Flathead Valley.
“There is some intolerance that worries me in the Flathead,” she says. “There’s a lot of name-calling wherever you go, but I think [John Stokes’] ‘Green Nazi’ term, and how commonly used it was, was pretty disturbing to me. It’s an example of how a term can become acceptable if it’s repeated over and over again.”
The film reaches a peak during the roaring fires of 2003, an on-camera metaphor for the tumultuous concerns and opinions of Flathead residents.
“There was evidence everywhere of this community pulling together in a time of disaster, and yet there was still this conflict,” O’Neill says.
“There are a lot of challenges here,” she continues. “Look, you’ve got housing prices that are through the roof and wages that are still not keeping up. You’ve got an economy and a culture that was based on timber, and that’s obviously less than it was before. You’ve got globalization—this big aluminum plant in Columbia Falls that was there that employed a lot of people, and now it doesn’t provide as many jobs as it used to. You’ve got this beautiful landscape that people see changing every day they drive down the road. You know, I think that all that is hard, and some people are angry. Some people are afraid, and some people are just very, very sad.”
Despite such challenges, the filmmaker says she grew to love the people of the Flathead during her two-and-a-half years of filming. “I’ve become a little less objective and a little more like a cheerleader for the Flathead Valley.”
The Fire Next Time: A Not in Our Town Special doesn’t have its PBS air date assigned yet, but O’Neill says it will be on TV screens across the nation sometime next year. In the meantime, it remains to be seen if the Flathead will accept this on-screen version of itself. The community will have a chance to share opinions with the filmmaker after each screening, but already, some have decided that an “outsider” can’t possibly understand the Flathead.
“There’s some skepticism about ‘outside filmmaker comes in and makes a film,’” O’Neill acknowledges. “But sometimes, when you’re in the middle of a community, it’s harder to see. So I think there’s actually a bit of an advantage in seeing things from the outside.”