At what point does a political protest cross the line into domestic terrorism? Anyone whose seen the vandalism and violence perpetrated against dissenters and journalists by groups like ANTIFA know the line can very quickly be blurred. A more rural stance against supposed government oppression plays out in David Byar’s No Man’s Land.
From January 2- February 11, 2016, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon was taken over by self-proclaimed “patriots” in an effort to protest supposed Federal overreach of authority in regards to rancher’s rights on public lands. Two Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, had been federally prosecuted for setting controlled burns on public land, ostensibly to protect against brush fire and invasive species. The story caught the attention of Arizona ranchers Ammon Bundy and LaVoy Finicum who promptly relocate to Oregon and took it upon themselves to not only advocate on the Hammond’s behalf but to stage a stand against the Federal Government as well.
The Bundys had a history of armed confrontation with Federal authorities in Southern Nevada in 2014, also over grazing rights. When the Hammonds respectfully rejected any help regarding their case, the Bundys and Finicum nevertheless used their plight as a lightning rod to invite militants and Patriots from across America to stand tall with them against Government tyranny and perhaps manifest a little destiny along the way. The standoff attracted considerable media attention and the occupiers played it for all it was worth, sparking debate and division among Burns residents who slowly saw their quiet town taken over by Confederate flag-waving armed thugs from out of state. It was only after Finicum was shot dead by FBI agents after reaching for a weapon while trying to leave the property that the occupation gradually wound down with the remaining occupiers surrendering after supplies ran out.
Byars filmed all these proceedings whilst deeply imbedded with the protesters as this event unfolded. Aided considerably by media snippets and social media broadcasts, the film paints an intimate and disturbing picture of a group so utterly convinced of their righteousness that they’re unable to see the harm their inflicting on the very community they claim to be fighting for. “I could not understand given my experience in, say, Mexico or Central America, how these people could feel they were being tyrannized.” muses journalist Hal Herring as he recalls his coverage of the occupation. Local Sheriff Dave Ward makes numerous pleas throughout the ordeal to end the standoff, but his words fall on deaf ears. Not surprising considering most of them belong to folks from out of town who feel they’re fighting a near-holy war against their government far-beyond any ranching dispute. It doesn’t take much for ones message to be highjacked by opportunistic radicals.
The film is long on footage, but frustratingly short on context. The Hammond case that began the whole ordeal is really only mentioned once and apt comparisons to the Dakota Pipeline protests and Black Lives Matter activism are sparingly alluded to leaving the story feeling incomplete. It seems to be a symptom of docs such as these to get so up close and personal with the subjects they’re covering that they neglect to give proper context in order for the viewer to form a true understanding of what they’re seeing. I ended up learning numerous key points about the event from the post-film Q&A (such as the Hammonds disavowal of the Bundy’s actions) that really should have made the final cut of the doc itself.
At it’s conclusion, No Man’s Landwill leave you with more questions than answers as you wonder how some of the most privileged members of our society could be driven to such extreme actions under the notion that they are oppressed. Nevertheless, the ideas that lead to these actions aren’t born in a vacuum. Is it not better to have a peek behind the curtain in an attempt to understand such people than to merely dismiss them out of hand? We’re stronger together than apart after all.
No Man’s Land screens again on Thursday May 10, 4:15pm @ Vancity Theatre as part of DOXA.