Facing the Storm

The documentary "Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison" questions why the iconic North American animal isn't managed like other wildlife in the United States.

High Plains Films

The Emmy Award-winning film “Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison” is meant to be provocative.

“The driving thesis of the film: Why is it the most iconic of North American animals has no status as true wildlife?” director-producer Doug Hawes-Davis said.

“All other animals you think of – grizzly bears, elk, deer – are managed as wildlife. It’s an important question for society to look at and that’s what we tried to do with the film.”

The 2010 documentary examining the relationship between humans and North American bison was nominated for and received a Northwest Regional Emmy Award in June for the topical documentary category.

“We worked on this film for many years,” Hawes-Davis said. “For me personally, it was one of the more important stories we’ve tried to tell.”

Hawes-Davis and Dru Carr co-founded Missoula based High Plains Films in 1992 to produce movies that look at the interaction between nature and society. In 2005, they founded Big Sky Film Institute as a nonprofit organization that would include High Plains Films as the production side, and Big Sky Documentary Film Festival to promote and celebrate independent nonfiction films.

Hawes-Davis started the bison project in 2001, when he did filming for a television company that agreed to share the footage rights. Because of funding, High Plains did not pursue the idea until they received a phone call in 2005 from a woman who’d seen the film company’s other productions.

“She’d seen our previous work on other wildlife issues,” Hawes-Davis said. “She called us up and said, ‘You need to make a film on the bison.’ ”

The woman followed up with a check large enough to start the project.

Later, High Plains partnered with Montana Public Television and the Independent Television Service to complete and broadcast the film, which cost about $200,000 to make.

Carr said the most difficult part of the film was trying to take the entire history of the bison and condense it into 78 minutes.

“It was sort of ambitious in that way,” Carr said. “Trying to tell the breadth of that story in a short amount of time – there’s so much we had to necessarily leave out.”

The wide view made the film unique, Carr said.

“To me, it’s the first film that has addressed the story of the bison in a broad way,” Carr said. “I think it’s the fact that it really describes the big picture of bison in North America from their evolutionary standpoint to where we are today.”

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In 2011, Independent Lens, a film series on PBS, announced that “Facing the Storm” was in the season lineup.

Hawes-Davis said the enthusiastic reception of the film and the Emmy Award felt good after the work that went into it.

“When you finish something, you personally feel good about it, but it’s a lot better when other people feel good about it,” Hawes-Davis said. “It’s good to see the film works – that it connects with an audience.”

Hawes-Davis said he’s not sure if the award will change the company in any way.

“We’re always developing new ideas, making work we feel good about,” Hawes-Davis said. “I feel really fortunate to be able to do this work for so long and making enough to survive.”

Carr said High Plains will continue to tell stories about the American landscape and people.

“I don’t know if I could say I think we will become a big film company,” Carr said. “I do think we’ll continue to make meaningful films, and ones we can be proud of.”

The collaboration High Plains brought into the “Facing the Storm” project improved the result, Carr said.

“We reached out and included other people in this project,” Carr said. “We do want to continue collaborating with other people.”

As for the film, Hawes-Davis said he hopes it will start people thinking through the complicated issues bison present.

“We don’t grant (bison) the ability to be wild in the same way we do with every other wild animal,” Hawes-Davis said. “I’d like for people to gain a better understanding of what our relationship to this animal has been, not ‘this should be our next path.’ I’d like for people to ponder these questions.”

Joanna Wilson is a journalism student at the University of Idaho and a Missoulian intern. She can be reached at (406) 523-5251 or at joanna.wilson@missoulian.com.

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