Wild wonders 

Hawes-Davis delivers definitive doc on bison with Facing the Storm

Ask most documentary filmmakers about their greatest challenge in making films, and if they don't say "money" by the second sentence, it's a good bet that Mr. or Ms. Independent Filmmaker is also independently wealthy. For every other documentarian, the quest for funding can feel endless. And sometimes, between the grant-writing and phone calls, money comes from the most unexpected of places.

Award-winning Montana filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis had been toying with the idea of making the definitive bison documentary for more than a decade, but didn't really get serious about the effort until five years ago. That's when a woman from Florida called him and said he really should make a film about the plight of the buffalo.

"She had seen the news footage of the capture and slaughter stuff on television," says Hawes-Davis. "I kind of said, 'Yeah, it's a great idea. Do you have $50,000 to help us get started?'"

The question may have been rhetorical, but it turns out the woman had a foundation, and she ended up writing the check for the original funding. It would be the first of several major funding sources for Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison, which premiers this weekend in Kansas, followed by a one-night screening in Missoula Oct. 6.

click to enlarge Facing the Storm, by award-winning filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis, is both a historical documentary and a wildlife film about the plight of bison. The film, which screens in Missoula this week, delves into core questions about the wild herds’ place in the West.
  • Facing the Storm, by award-winning filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis, is both a historical documentary and a wildlife film about the plight of bison. The film, which screens in Missoula this week, delves into core questions about the wild herds’ place in the West.

The treatment and management of bison is one of the epic fails in the history of the United States. And while it's a subject that's been documented many times before, Facing the Storm may be the most comprehensively concise examination of how and why we managed to nearly eradicate 30 million animals from the Great Plains in less than 50 years, and what's being done today to ensure the survival of the wild herds. It's a crisp 78-minute film with little wasted space.

That storyline gives the documentary a two-part feel, but the transition between the two is a seamless one. Many Montanans may think they know the backstory, but Hawes-Davis manages to instill a familiar tale with freshness, thanks to some fantastic archival footage and a historical narrative that touches upon all the major points, often in creative fashion.

That timeline, of course, dates back as far as 800,000 years, when some believe the first ancient bison arrived in North America. The decline begins with the arrival of horses into American Indian culture, gets worse with the arrival of white traders, and is made permanent by the construction of the railroad across the Great Plains. By the late 1870s, Americans practice their own version of modern-day helicopter hunting by shooting bison from moving trains.

It's an ugly tale beautifully documented. Facing the Storm incorporates stunning bison footage from more than 100 years ago, but even more powerful is the stop-motion silhouette-animation created by Missoula filmmaker and artist Andy Smetanka. Used mainly to interpret American Indians' connection with bison, the animation is at once eerie and beautiful. Smetanka and Hawes-Davis aren't the only locals of note contributing to the film: Rita Pastore and Danny Dauterive of Montana Public Television produced the documentary, Ken Furrow provided cinematography and sound, Emmy-nominated Drury Gunn Carr provided cinematography and editing, and Burke Jam played music for the film's original score, partly written by former Missoula musician Ivan Rosenberg.

Hawes-Davis, who co-founded High Plains Films and started the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, connects the near extinction of the bison to the U.S. government's American Indian policy at the time, arguing in essence that American Indians succumbed to the reservation system due to the disappearance of the animal that sustained them.

There are wonderful moments of dark humor regarding early efforts to save an animal on the verge of extinction. Dan Flores, a University of Montana history professor, notes the attitude in the late 19th century: "When you think there's only a handful of them left, you bag them and haul them off to a taxidermist to have them stuffed and put them in a diorama."

Future president Teddy Roosevelt held the same attitude when he eagerly traveled to the Dakotas in order to hunt the last herds. The American Bison Association may have eventually "saved" the bison in the early 20th century but, Flores, says, "We didn't save them as wild animals."

And that's the central and most intriguing question of the film's second half. "The question is whether we're going to allow wildlife to be wild," wildlife advocate John Lilburn says in the film.

It's a complicated question. The film notes that, numerically speaking, we have achieved a recovery in the bison population. There are more than 400,000 in the United States today, but nearly all are raised for meat, and many of those are either cattle hybrids or animals that have been selectively bred for their more docile genes.

The few remaining wild herds—almost all of which live in the Yellowstone ecosystem—are, as anyone in Montana knows, the subject of immense controversy. Hawes-Davis covers the conflict as fairly as one could expect from a bison advocate, dispelling myths about brucellosis, but including impassioned pleas from ranchers to keep the herds confined to Yellowstone National Park. Nonetheless, Hawes-Davis presents a convincing case that bison should be allowed to follow their natural migration paths.

In fact, much of the film's most gripping footage was shot nearly 10 years ago in and around Yellowstone, after High Plains Films was hired to shoot a piece on the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC) for a series on endangered species. A decade later, that footage—along with some gripping BFC amateur video—documents the still-ongoing battles between the livestock industry, hunters and bison advocates.

Facing the Storm (so-named because bison herds often walk into bad weather so as to more quickly escape it) is both a historical documentary and a wildlife film.

"It's not easily characterized," say Hawes-Davis. "We wound up struggling with the things you might expect—everything from archival footage to filming the wildlife, which is always a challenge."

The film hints at further challenges on the horizon, including efforts to create large new national parks on the Great Plains where bison could once again migrate as they did for hundreds of centuries. The concept of a Buffalo Commons National Park was heavily criticized when first proposed more than 20 years ago, but as Hawes-Davis illustrates, public opinion is swaying.

"The plains were never settled as expected," says Frank Popper, one of the plan's main proponents. "There's still lots of room for bison."

Hawes-Davis concurs.

"It's just one of many ideas," he says, "but it's only a matter of time before there is a national park ... I'm optimistic that something will happen."

Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison screens at the Wilma Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 6 at 7 PM. $8.

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