As astonishing as the access David Garrett Byars received from the militia that held the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon hostage for 41 days in the winter of 2016 to film them for his riveting debut feature “No Man’s Land,” it is secondary to the insight he brings to what unfolded there. Having kept an eye on Cliven Bundy, the rabble-rousing cattle rancher who, with his sons Ryan and Ammon, among others, as he was instigating standoffs with federal authorities across the West to make a point about government overreach with armed takeovers of public land, Byars could not make sense of his actions, but he could start to understand his thinking as the remarks he heard at events of Bundy’s could easily have come from rallies held by either political party leading up to last year’s presidential election.
“One of the phrases that was repeated over and over at these events, and at the Malheur [specifically], was, “Well, with the way things are going in America …” There was a ton of tiny talismans that they point to, and public lands were just one of them, so this whole movement surrounding the Bundys was more indicative of a deeper dissatisfaction,” says Byars. “To really get to the people behind this particular echo chamber, it was nice to see the humanity behind their actions, but also [in some ways it was nice to] point a finger towards our own echo chamber that we all live in ourselves, and throw a wrench in their perceptions that the other side is necessarily evil or stupid.”
“No Man’s Land” doesn’t lionize the Bundys or their followers, but in not dismissing them either, it brings a perspective that is rarely articulated onscreen and with it, the seeds for a film that is every bit as riveting for what it reveals about the extreme ideologues that have become the focus of American politics rather than the fringe as it is for putting audiences in the midst of a combustible situation that threatens to explode into violence at any minute. Byars often finds himself standing next to men with assault rifles on both sides of the standoff, but more often than not, one suspects that his camera is the most effective weapon in the room as it strips away the bluster of their posturing to expose the sincerity of their beliefs, for better or worse. Shortly before the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, the filmmaker spoke about how he found his way into the militia’s tents and the patience required to capture such a fraught situation, as well as how he was able to piece together a jawdropping climax despite being allowed nowhere near it and how he left a career as a financial analyst to become a most promising new filmmaker.
You’ve said your interest in this subject before Malheur happened, so how did this percolate before you ultimately committed to making a film about it?
Cliven Bundy had that huge standoff back in April of 2014 in Bunkerville that captured the nation’s attention, and also mine, as well. At that point, I hadn’t really thought to make a documentary about this whole paradigm, but that next month, in May, I saw that there was going to be another event like this. The Bundys were on a road show at that point. They had just come off this big victory at Bunkerville and they were going to Recapture Canyon in Utah to protest the federal closure of a road on public land. It was about three hours from where I lived in Southwest Colorado, which in Colorado is like right next door, so I jumped at the opportunity to go out there with Jim Hurst, good friend of mine, and a sound guy and cinematographer. We witnessed this entire event and I met [Cliven’s son] Ryan Bundy. He gave me a pocket Constitution.
I thought it was fascinating what was going on in the West, because places like Colorado and Utah have this crazy dichotomy where the rural areas think one way, and the ski towns and the urban areas think very differently, and I thought this represented the larger dichotomy of the United States, and this was a very specific issue you could point to as a little bit of a microcosm about our larger polarity in the United States. So I started following these activists and militia type groups during 2014 and 2015. I had seen them try to have these other standoffs that didn’t get the national spotlight and fizzled, but in January of 2016, when these folks took over the National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, I saw it as the standoff that the Bundys and their followers were trying to instigate.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy had taken over these federal buildings out in the middle of nowhere, which, on its face isn’t that dramatic, but at the same time it’s a situation in which the federal government has to respond to them in some way. Their strategy, previous to that, had been hands off, and be like, “Oh, okay, well, if you just fill out this paperwork, then no issue, and we’re all good, right?” But this [seemed like] their attempt to really regain the national spotlight very similar to how they had done in Bunkerville, and maybe walk away with another big victory.
Since you were on the ground from the very start of this, was there a disconnect between the national coverage you might’ve been seeing of the standoff versus what you were actually experiencing?
Depending on your perspective or your preconceived notions, you either saw the Bundys and their followers as heroes or villains. But it was a lot more complex than that, especially when it came to the people who were supporting the Bundys. The majority of these folks aren’t ranchers. They don’t really have a horse in the race of public lands management or ownership and when I started to interact with these people, I saw that they weren’t demons. They were people who deeply cared about something, but it wasn’t necessarily public lands. It was more of this vague dissatisfaction at the vision of America that they didn’t think was being enacted.
You meet someone particularly fascinating in Jason Patrick, who supports what the Bundys are up to – to a degree. How did he become such a central figure in the film?
He was one of the leaders of the Malheur occupation, and he would probably say otherwise, but he was very much a guy who had his intellectual point of view, and he knows what he’s talking about. Now, I might disagree with him on a lot of things — and I do — but I also agree with him on a lot of things. So he was just fascinating to get to know during the occupation and he was actually one of the only people who would talk to me at first, but he has these very well thought out beliefs, so I thought he would be the best vehicle to go get into these nuances of the grey area, and motivations [behind the occupation]. We talked to some other folks, as well, but he did it with a sense of humor, and [with] his conviction that I found really nice and refreshing that plays very well in terms of getting us to this idea of throwing a wrench into our conceptions about what and who these people are.
For those unaware of exactly how the occupation in Malheur ended, I don’t want to spoil the film, but how you put together the climax involving LaVoy Finicum, who served as spokesman for the occupation, is remarkable and I know you weren’t actually there, but at a meeting that he was supposed to attend in the town of John Day. Was there a moment of panic that you might not have an ending for the movie?
We did get very lucky in terms of that footage [of LaVoy Finicum] being released. The aerial footage was released by the FBI, and then the two cellphone videos from inside the car were actually released by the Oregon State Police. However, we did have an alternative in lieu of having that footage of the actual incident [since] I was present at the meeting. It was this bizarre situation where everyone was just waiting for the leadership of the occupation to show up, and then you could feel this wave of unrest go through the room. People were checking their cellphones and the self-appointed militia security-type guys, I don’t really know how [else] to define them, were rushing around and talking to each other. I had started to get texts that something was happening, so that meeting actually devolved into this very raucous situation where there was a lot of panic, and a lot of people were shouting, asking what happened. The guy who called the meeting actually got up, and finally said, “Unfortunately, these guys aren’t going to make it,” and he was obviously visibly disturbed.
There [were] so many [crazy things] at the refuge with the occupiers that day, and I knew about the John Day meeting. It wasn’t a secret. They were all going to go, and they were initially supposed to break up the leadership into several vehicles, and go at different times. Through a series of events, they ended up in just two vehicles with each other, the entire leadership of the occupation. I was filming at the [Malheur] Refuge, and I had actually asked Ryan Payne, one of the leaders of the occupation, if I could catch a ride with him to the meeting, because I was going to film with them in the car, [thinking] that would be a really cool thing to do. He said “yeah,” and then the time came when we were about to leave, and he was like, “Hey, so do you have a car? This woman Victoria Sharp needs a ride, so is it okay, if she rides with us, and you just drive your car there?” So I said I said, “Sure, whatever,” but I was pretty close to being in that car with them, which I have mixed feelings about. The way that that situation unfolded was so chaotic that who knows if it would’ve unfolded the same way if I been there with a camera, or not.
So I drove to the meeting, and then all the stirring started happening, and I filmed a bunch of it and started to driving back to the refuge, which was about an hour and a half away, but the police and FBI had shut down the highway in between the refuge and John Day, where I was for the meeting, so I got turned back and called one of my producers Stash Wislocki and we’re out in the middle of the snow-covered mountains in Oregon and he is trying to find a route for me to get back to the refuge. Long story short, I ended up driving through these mountains, coming to a bunch of dead ends where the snow made it impassible and it took me about five-and-a-half hours to make it back to the refuge.
By the time I got back there, it was probably 1:00 AM, and they had moved this big construction equipment — an earth mover — onto the road to block off the entrance to the refuge and [when] I saw Jason Patrick there, I talked to him for a little bit, and asked if I could go into the refuge. He was a bit hesitant, like, “You know, it’s really dangerous. We don’t know when the Feds will be moving in.” But [I assured him,] “I know the risks. This is what I want to do.” So he radioed up, and one of the occupiers, Duane Ehmer, who’s the much photographed man on the horse with the American flag, came down and met me about halfway, and — I had a flashlight on — so he said, “Turn it off. There’s plenty of light out here” and he warned me, “This is now a dangerous situation that you’re going into. You could be shot and killed by someone.” He wasn’t talking about them. So I said, “All right. I’m coming with you,” and that’s when I got a lot of that night footage of when those guys were very afraid that the Feds were going to move in at any moment, and obviously, nothing happened [that was harmful], but I did spend that entire night filming with those guys.
That next morning I actually went to go get in my car to sleep for a little bit, because I had been up for 48 hours at that point, and [thought I’d] maybe go to this press conference that the FBI was putting on back in town, but [when I] came up on the FBI roadblock, and they were like, “Get out of your car. Put your hands up and walk towards us,” and there’s guys with sniper rifles pointed at me. I actually asked them, “Do I have to leave? Can I go back? I’m a documentarian. I just want to document this.” And there was a moment where I thought they were going to let me go back in, but then they were like, “No. You’re out. You have to leave.” so it was nuts, but it was good. I feel like I got some real, raw emotions [where] I was in this moment where these guys were feeling the most deep and profound fear and paranoia, but necessary paranoia.
Beyond how intense this sounds because of the subject, it was also your first feature as a director. Was it any different than other things you’ve worked on because of that?
This had been a side burner project for a long time, but when the events at Malheur happened, that’s when it became a little bit more high-profile, and I was like, “Okay, this is the time for me to be all hands on deck.” Luckily, I was able to turn this into a co-production with [Morgan Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick’s production company] Warrior Poets during the occupation, so I knew we were going to have financing to do [a feature], and when I got back [from the occupation], we figured out the budget. I got to hire an editor — David Osit, who was my top choice for this — which was one of the real linchpins of this film’s hopeful future success. He brings nuance to something that’s very, very complex. From our earliest conversations with him, I knew that he was the one to help me shape this film into what it is now. So as a first time director, I got really lucky. I’ll take credit for knowing that this was a big deal [at Malheur], but at the same time, I could never know how big of a deal this would turn into, in terms of capturing the attention of the nation, and I felt like I grew as a filmmaker tenfold during this time, just by virtue of being surrounded by my producers and my editor.
I had heard that you actually were a financial analyst at one point, and then turned to film. Why the career change?
Growing up, I grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and my parents were always supportive of whatever I wanted to do, but growing up in this middle-sized town, your career path is you’re going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, or something blue collar, so being a filmmaker was akin to saying, “Well, I’m going to be a firetruck when I grow up.” It’s just not something that people wanted to do, or thought was possible. So I became a financial analyst. I was a mathlete in middle school, and I still love math, but I quit being a financial analyst, and I moved to Telluride, Colorado, where I just went to be a ski bum. Then I started getting involved in working at these film festivals and that’s when my eyes were opened to what was possible in terms of storytelling and documentaries. So I started making these crappy little short films, and then making money any way I could, filming weddings, shooting little commercials for local businesses for a pair of old ski boots, and stuff like that.
Then I hitched my wagon to this local filmmaker named Suzan Beraza, who gets these offers all the time from people always trying to say they want to work for her, but they never really follow through. So I basically just showed up. She had this really horrendous footage management issue going on with her film “Uranium Drive-In,” and it took several weeks, but I fixed it. and she was like, “Okay, you’re part of the team,” for having just that perseverance to push through this really mundane and boring but important problem to fix for this film. She was very kind, very encouraging, and very patient with my really crappy first edits and my shoddy camera work, and she gave me space to grow into the storytelling world. That’s how I got my start.